Dear J.T. & Dale: I was employed as a route driver by the same company for 15 years. I was terminated after I tested positive for marijuana. I know I made a mistake. Since then, I have been on three interviews that sounded very promising, until they contacted my previous employer. How do I address this issue?
DALE: Given that marijuana use is legal in some states, I was curious about testing for it, especially how long its use can be detected. Turns out it can show up in urine tests for days or weeks — sometimes even months — after use, which is far longer than cocaine or heroin. This means that someone who tests positive for marijuana may have been extremely responsible about not driving “under the influence.” Still, for a professional driver, a positive marijuana test has a similar effect on job prospects as a DUI. Why? Because it shows that the person chose to flout company policy, even knowing that the company did drug testing. This makes the person a risky hire, regardless of the circumstances of drug use.
J.T.: The solution is to be proactive and tell potential employers prior to a reference check what they can expect. You need to be remorseful and accountable, while making it very clear that this will never happen again. By being proactive, you are showing character. My guess is that those last three prospective employers were upset that they had to do a reference check to find out about the failed drug test.
DALE: As part of convincing employers that you are committed to a change for the better, you might offer to do regular drug tests and pay for them yourself. They are unlikely to take you up on this, but it demonstrates commitment and your willingness to do more than talk strong.
J.T.: Rehearse this conversation. Everybody makes mistakes, but how you talk about the mistakes makes all the difference.
Dear J.T. & Dale: I recently was let go from my first job out of college. I am trying to figure out how to explain what happened without sounding bitter. I was written up five times in two years, including two occasions when my manager said the work wasn’t done, even though it was successfully completed on time. When I asked HR to intervene, they told me that my manager was very highly rated, and they sided with him. I ended up being forced to resign. If potential employers contact my manager, they’re going to get a ridiculous version of events.
J.T.: This sounds like a case where management’s goals were not in alignment with your own. It became clear to you that you weren’t the right individual for this role. That’s the start of the story you should be telling to potential employers when they ask if they can check your references.
DALE: Although I wouldn’t be terribly worried about your past manager. Odds are, when a new employer does a background check, all they’ll get is verification of dates of employment. Then, as for references, try to find two or three management employees at the old company who will be complimentary of your work. Once they agree to be references, you can talk with them about how to explain your departure. You did, after all, resign.
J.T.: Should prospective employers hear anything negative about you, the best way to offset a bad reference is with passion and enthusiasm for your field. Articulate the kinds of projects that excite you, and be enthusiastic when you talk about the ways you can save or make them money. The idea here is to put more items in the plus column than in the minus one.
DALE: The good news is that you are in a “sweet spot” for getting hired. People like to hire someone who has a few years of experience. They’ll see you as someone who is affordable but better than a fresh grad. You’ve learned a lot about where and how to be successful, and future employers will benefit from your having figured out what does and does not work for you.