Friday, July 27, 2007

When a Job Ends Badly

I spent seven years working for and with my fiance who is self-employed. I didn't receive a salary, but worked in exchange for all expenses. We jointly owned a house and when he ended our relationship things got quite ugly as he felt I should have no profit from that house, which I was fully entitled to.

After nine months we came to an agreement, but now I'm trying to find employment and I'm afraid of what he would say to a prospective employer. He runs his businesses himself so there is nobody else to go to for a reference.

Please help me figure out what to say about why I left, my salary, and the fact that I don't want him contacted.
Thanks so much!
--- Lynn

by Wendy Gelberg, Career Coach and Resume Writer

Hi, Lynn,
There are several things you can do to neutralize the negatives from your most recent work situation as you launch your job search. The first is to develop a strong resume and cover letter, neither of which needs to address the questions you raise – you’ll do that in the interview. The resume and cover letter, along with some active networking, will help you land the interview in the first place by focusing on your achievements and results and how they will help the employer (you’ll hear that theme throughout the advice that follows).

Once you get to talk with an employer directly, whether in person or by phone, the most important thing to remember is not to get defensive and not to sound negative about what happened with your previous employer/ex-fiancé. Keep in mind that not all job applicants are invited for an interview, so when you are given that opportunity, it means that there’s something in your background that an employer is impressed with or interested in, and you want to be sure to find out what that is and expand upon on that aspect of your background. That will keep the tone of the interview positive and keep it focused on your skills and achievements and how they will benefit the new employer.

As for your specific questions, let’s look at them one at a time, starting with the question of why you left. It’s perfectly acceptable to offer the explanation you gave above – you were working with your fiancé, helping him manage his business, and when that relationship ended, it made sense to find work elsewhere. No more detail is necessary. In fact, more detail would be excessive and would risk having you get defensive or inadvertently bad-mouth your ex. Even if the interviewer doesn’t immediately ask another question and your answer is followed by what may feel like an awkward silence, don’t give in to the temptation to elaborate on your answer. Wait out the silence. Or express your excitement about this new opportunity and describe the contribution you can make to help this employer achieve its goals, based on information you’ve been given or have researched.

With regard to references, there are a couple of ways to approach this. Will your ex-fiancé verify that you worked at his company? Many, if not most, employers have adopted a policy of providing only verification of employment – they will not provide more detailed references for fear of being sued. Perhaps your ex will choose this conservative course, in which case there is no risk in having someone contact him. Regardless, you don’t necessarily have to use him as a reference, and given your reason for leaving your last job, a new employer would understand that your ex might not be a good reference. Perhaps you had dealings with vendors, customers, or other professional service providers, who can serve as references instead.

If not, think about finding an organization that you can offer your services to as a volunteer, using your professional skills, so that you can begin to create a new professional track record. Since a job search typically takes several months, you have time to establish your credibility, character, and competence in another setting so that others will be able to vouch for you.

One other thought about references – consider checking out what your ex will actually say when contacted by a prospective employer. You could have a friend call, or you could hire a company that does reference checks and reports back to you what your references are saying. (One such company is Allison & Taylor.). With all of your references, it’s a good idea to brief them on each position you interview for and what aspects of your background you want them to speak to.

Finally, the question of salary: First, it’s best to deflect salary discussions until there’s actually an offer on the table. However, that’s not always possible. Sometimes an employer will ask you about your salary history. In your case, the situation is the same as if you had been working as a volunteer for an organization for seven years, and you can present it as such – that doesn’t make your work any less valuable or your achievements any less positive. You were helping out as a de facto member of the family and did not draw a salary.

Sometimes an employer will ask what your target salary is. Do some homework ahead of time and find out the going rate for your occupation in your geographic area. Then, if you can’t deflect the salary discussion, you can indicate that you understand that the range is generally between x and y, and ask if that is in fact the range for this position. To help you with your salary homework, there are several web sites that calculate salary, such as from CareerBuilder, or Also, use your networking to help you get a sense of what people in your field are making.

As long as you stay focused on the positive, Lynn, and the benefits you bring to the new employer, you should be able to shine in any interview situation. Best of luck with your search!

Wendy Gelberg, M.Ed., helps job seekers communicate effectively and confidently, in speech and in writing, to get unstuck in their job search.

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