Should you reveal your embarrassing past at work?

What do Bruno Mars, Reese Witherspoon, Justin Bieber, and Martha Stewart have in common? If you guessed that they’re all famous and wealthy celebrities, you’re half right. Aside from earning big bucks in their chosen careers, they’ve all been arrested at one point or another.

For celebrities having an arrest (or two) might offer a certain level of street cred or cachet. For the rest of us though, a brush with the law or embarrassing past could pose a serious career threat.

So, what should you do if you have a colorful past? Perhaps learning from famous folks with monumental faux pas could help.

Own it

Back in 2004, Ashlee Simpson-Ross experienced a very public embarrassing moment while performing live on Saturday Night Live. The band started playing her song “Pieces of Me” and Simpson’s vocals began- only she wasn’t singing. Simpson stumbled over her vocals and it was immediately obvious she was lip syncing.

Last summer Simpson-Ross told E News: “That was a very long time ago. It’s something that happened to me and things in life happen to you and they make you stronger and they make you a better performer, a better person. I think things like that build your character and your strength and it’s how you handle them.”

Fortunately for most of us, professional humiliations don’t happen in quite that public a forum.

But if you do screw up and it’s caught on video for perpetuity, you might not have to tell a potential employer about it- they may already know. If that’s the case, learn from Simpson-Ross- admit it, allow the other person to process it, acknowledge it if need be, and move on.

Pay attention to the fallout

2004 seems to have been a big year for celebrity career disasters. While Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were performing at the Super Bowl halftime show, Timberlake pulled at Jackson’s top, exposing parts of the anatomy never previously seen at the Super Bowl. The ensuing scandal became known as Nipplegate and inspired the phrase “wardrobe malfunction.”

While no one knows if it was planned or truly accidental, the fallout has been discussed for years. An in-depth analysis in USA Today earlier this year revisited the original players ranging from Jackson’s tailor, her body piercer, an NFL executive and the FCC chairman. It was an interesting breakdown since it highlighted a major fact- sometimes your screw up at work damages more than your own career.

While Jackson took the brunt of the fallout, there were many behind the scenes whose careers were impacted.

The USA Today article quotes Michael Powell, The FCC Chairman, as saying that he still remembers sitting next to one of his neighbors at a Super Bowl watch party in 2004 during the halftime show. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God. If this really happened, my day is really going to suck tomorrow.” Powell was also quoted as saying “The war was on the minute we walked into the office. People were falling all over themselves to announce their outrage and their discontent.”

If you’ve somehow been part of a professional scandal, it’s important to realize that it not only impacts you- but could affect the business, reputation or even careers of those around you. In the case of the Super Bowl debacle, Powell mounted a full investigation before making any decisions or levying for fines. In the cubicle world, it might not be quite that sophisticated.

If you’ve been the center of a work scandal or even on its peripheries, it may be in your best interest to speak to your current or potential employer and tell your own side of the story before the rumor mill starts up.

Follow up strongly

When Fergie was still lead female vocalist of the Black Eyed Peas she had a particularly embarrassing moment on stage in 2005. While singing “Let’s Get it Started” she accidentally lost control of her bladder and it was visible to anyone watching. She later referred to that as “the most unattractive moment of my life.”

Two years later Fergie released a song called “Big Girls Don’t Cry” which was probably a nod to her acknowledging her humiliating moment and then moving on.

One last thought

If you do have an embarrassing past, spend some time thinking about the consequences of revealing the details rather than keeping them to yourself. It might feel awful to tell a hiring manager about the great big blip in your career, but it will probably feel a lot worse to have someone discover it and then share it behind your back.