7 ways to deal with a blot on your CV

Thoughtful preparation can prevent black marks on your work record from undercutting your job search.
7 ways to deal with a blot on your CV

If we look back across our careers, we all have periods, projects — perhaps even entire jobs — that we’d rather forget.

Generally, these aren’t an issue if you’re happy in your current position. But they may cause you concern if you’re looking for a new role.

So how do you deal with a blot on your CV? Here are a few ways:

1. Ask yourself: “How bad is it, really?” Really bad is something like being sacked for dishonesty or serious misconduct. Working for a company that collapsed or being in a position that was made redundant is not really bad. In fact, although some people worry that these look like a mark against them, both could potentially be spun as positives. If you are in doubt about how serious something is, ask a few of your peers how they view it.

2. Ask yourself: “How long ago was it?” If you were sacked from a job two years ago, that’s pretty hard to skate over. If you were sacked from a job 20 years ago and have successfully held five positions since, you probably don’t need to mention it. Don’t get hung up on ancient history. People are mostly interested in what you’ve done in the past five years.

3. Don’t view your CV as an exhaustive record of your career. Your CV serves two functions. The first is to sell you, and the second is to tell prospective employers about you. You should never lie, but it is acceptable to maximise your good points and minimise the bad. There is absolutely no reason to draw attention to your failures. So if you got poor marks at university, you might list just the degree subject and university. If you are asked for the result in the interview, tell the truth. But do not give the low grade without being asked.

4. Be ready with an answer. While it is foolish to draw prospective employers’ attention to your shortcomings, you need to be ready with an answer if they spot them. If you are asked, tackle the issue head-on with a confident, cogent answer. This can actually work in your favour. Interviewers like people who can show they’ve overcome setbacks and learned from mistakes.

5. Don’t view work gaps as a disaster. The modern, fluid world of employment is very forgiving of stop-start careers. If asked about a gap in employment, focus on the positives. If you spent six months without a job but went travelling for three of them and learned to code or speak German, you should have no problem at all. Even a brief consultancy over a work break, framed right, should be enough to convince an employer that you didn’t sit at home watching soaps in bed. This is all you really need to do.

6. Beware lingering blots. Some blots might stick with you longer than others. There are basically two categories here. One is the single black mark so severe it is going to make any employer wary. This is sometimes called a “career-limiting move”, and incidents such as fraud would fall into this category. The second is a sequence of lesser black marks that give the impression (rightly or wrongly) that you make the same mistakes over and over again. Neither is possible to explain away or turn into a positive.

7. Remind yourself that people bounce back and you can, too. Write a CV that focuses on your skills and competencies rather than a chronological list of your jobs. Here, sites such as LinkedIn and the modern fashion for CVs that stress portable skills both count in your favour. Stress what you are good at, while working up a narrative that frames your misstep as one that has taught you valuable lessons and that you have recovered from.

Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and the author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jack Hagel, an FM magazine editorial director, at Jack.Hagel@aicpa-cima.com.