Secrets: To Tell or Not to Tell


Photo by stevendepolo.

Secrets. We all have secrets. Some relate back to childhood; some are financial; some involve family; some raise ethical questions; some relate to your profession; and some are downright blushingly terrible.

While some secrets will and should remain secret, others may have impact on your career trajectory. 

There are secrets that you should share or they will be shared for you. It is all about revealing it at the right time and to the right person.

1) Maternity. Being pregnant can only be a secret for so long. While you can mention your pregnancy, the reality is that employers may not hire you, notwithstanding the illegality. On the other hand, if you don’t mention it, you may expect resentment or distrust from not being forthright. Take a page from Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, who informed the Yahoo Board at her fist interview that she was expecting. At what point do you disclose? We recommend that you disclose after the first interview with the hiring manager when you both have a mutual interest.

2) Disability / Health Issues. Employers can’t discriminate against candidates for disabilities, and there are non-visible disabilities that are no one’s business but yours. However, if your disability impacts your ability to perform in the role, you have an obligation to disclose it. Several years ago, a client hired an executive for a senior business development position that required 80 percent travel. It appeared to be a good fit until the executive disclosed that he suffered from fear of flying and that he hoped to reduce the amount of travel. Clearly, a secret the candidate should have divulged before the offer was made. In fact, the candidate should have divulged this secret to us so we could have saved us all some time.

3) Financial issues. With the abundance of online data available, it is impossible to not leave a financial footprint. Employers are increasingly running credit checks and can receive results within a matter of minutes. If you are unclear what your credit status is, you are entitled to ask for a free credit report once a yearClean up what you can and explain what you can’t. This is one area with no wiggle room and no secrets, but honesty does pay off. Years ago, we conducted a search for a senior executive of one of the nation’s largest not-for-profits. After the second round of interviews, the candidate disclosed to us and the client that he had filed for bankruptcy – twice. He explained the circumstances – yes, there is a way to make two bankruptcies sound not so bad – and the client hired him, though thankfully not for a Chief Financial Officer position. The candidate remains with the client and both cite his honesty as a pivotal moment in the interview process.

4) Legal Issues. Similarly, if you have had run-ins with the law, or even a minor fender bender, count on it being public knowledge. Is it something you should disclose? Recently we conducted a search and ran a background check on a candidate which showed that she had amassed 20 speeding tickets over the last ten years. Problem? In this case, no, because all of the tickets were for 10 miles over the speed limit in the same location, though come to think of it, it made us wonder if she had heard of radar detectors. On a more serious note, one candidate was the subject of a class action lawsuit. The fact that he did not disclose it to us knowing we were doing a background check made us more suspicious of him and ultimately the lack of trust, not the lawsuit, put him in second place for the search.

5) Career Missteps. Everyone has made bad decisions or has had career setbacks. Some have been fired and some have taken a position only to leave in short order, as discussed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal’s career counseling column, while others have had their personal lives impact their career. If you have been fired, there is no alternative other than the truth. The point is to be honest and show that you have learned from your mistake. And timing is very important on this disclosure. You should not disclose it in the final minutes of the final interview, but as you become “serious” about the potential match, you must “fess up.”

Last month, I interviewed a Chief Information Officer candidate. As we went through his resume, he stated up front that he had been fired ten years ago and that it was the best thing that ever happened to him because it was a wakeup call that his internal client skills needed to be honed. Sure enough, reference checking confirmed his firing but in subsequent positions, he worked hard to excel in his user/internal client communications. The client, a believer in personal development, liked the candidate’s honesty and ability to overcome career setbacks.

6) Social Media. While your Facebook and Twitter accounts can hardly be characterized as secrets, they may contain information that you would want to be separate from your professional life. By law, employers cannot ask about your age, religion, gender – although it should be obvious – family or personal life. If you put any of this information on a social networking site, such as Facebook, you can be fairly certain that your personal life is no longer personal and is in the public domain. You should conduct a search of yourself on Google and social media sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, and similar social and networking sites) and remove any content that you would not want your professional contacts and prospective employers to see. You can even set up a Google email alert for your name so you receive notification every time you are mentioned online.

Everyone is entitled to secrets. However in all senior leadership positions there is a relationship of trust that is important both internally and externally. Increasingly, CEOs' personal and professional conduct is under the microscope of shareholders, employees and boards of directors. If they uncover anything questionable, they will question everything.



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