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What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Worst-Case Career Scenarios and How You Can Fix Them

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Aug 3, 2017

Danger sign

Sometimes, whether from your own actions or those of others, you face a genuine career crisis, the kind of event that leaves you wondering whether you have any future in this profession at all—a truly worst-case scenario. While going through something like this is never pleasant, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start your career over from scratch. You can recover from a major career crisis, provided you stay calm and make the right moves.

Scenario 1: You’ve made a very expensive mistake, one that costs your company a significant chunk of its annual revenue. Maybe your actions brought on a lawsuit or regulatory measures or the loss of your firm’s biggest client. Regardless, your blunder has cost the company millions of dollars, and the news has spread throughout the industry. You’ve already been fired. How will you ever find another job?

The first thing you need to do is acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility, according to Dan Moran, founder and president of Next-Act: Career Management & Transition Specialists. Trying to deflect blame and deny responsibility, he said, only serves to draw attention to the event and makes you look even guiltier. That stops you from being able to just move on.

“The key,” he said, “is to accept what occurred, embrace it and say, ‘OK, this happened. I can’t change it; I’m not going to waste my time trying to change it.’”

It’s important to also think about what you learned from the mistake and what you can do to avoid repeating it, said Susan Arth, a consultant with Careerminds, an outplacement service. It’s also important, however, to understand that a single mistake, even a big one, does not define you for the rest of your life. “I would not advocate [that] you throw away everything you worked for, especially if it was a mistake and nothing you did on purpose, or not something criminal—it was a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes,” she said.

When seeking a new job, it’s important to draw attention to all the good things you’ve done outside the mistake that got you fired, said career coach Beverly Daniel, founder of CareerGrowth Group. She said to “frame” the incident as an aberration in an otherwise stellar record. “Emphasize the positive—my glowing references here, my contribution there, my next contribution at some other place—and that this was a down point.

Finally, while getting a reference from your former employers may be out of the question, Sharon Weinreb, an executive coach with CareerCoach.com, said that it might be worth it to seek out other people who can speak on your behalf. “Look at the relationships you’ve built [up] to now. They will become your references.”

Scenario 2: You shared evidence of corporate malfeasance with federal authorities, which led to an investigation and numerous fines. Somehow, your identity as the whistleblower became public. While it feels good to do the right thing, you find yourself with a reputation as a “troublemaker.” How do you boost your career prospects?

Companies hesitant about a known whistleblower may be less worried about the act itself and more about why you did it, according to Weinreb. Future employers might be worried that you blew the whistle to get back at someone, or to get your name in the papers, or because you just hated the company and wanted to bring it down. Telling your story right is vital to setting these fears at ease, she said.

“You really have to be able to weave this story to let people understand … [you] wanted what was best for the company,” she said.

Arth added that while, yes, there are companies out there that see being a whistleblower as a liability, there are others that understand it is an asset. Being known for doing the right thing, even at great personal cost, can be appealing to the right employer.

“If you’re a whistleblower, I think you look for companies that might really value that kind of person. So maybe there is a place for you if you’re on the straight and narrow, and with some companies, you can even lead with that and say, ‘You know this is my reputation, and I really embrace it,’” she said.

And if things really are bad, Moran noted that you can take all your skills and talents somewhere else, at least for a little while—everyone needs accountants.

“If you’re someone who’s [viewed as] a troublemaker because [you’re] a whistleblower, redirect. Your talents, skills, can be used elsewhere. … Especially if you go into an organization—and there’s so many jobs open right now it’s incredible—maybe smaller in nature, where you can go in as a manager or director and rebuild yourself,” he said.

Scenario 3: You have become the subject of an Internet mob. Whether it came from a tweet you thought was harmless or a video taken at an unguarded moment, you have been disparaged all over the net. What do you do now?

Do not get defensive. While it can be tempting to fight every anonymous commenter you come across, Erik Bernstein, vice president of Bernstein Crisis Management, said that this is one of the absolute worst things you can do. So what to do instead? You need to communicate, one, that you understand the situation and why it came about; two, that you’ve done something about it; and three, what you will do to reduce the chances of this happening again.

“You [may] wind up needing to do interviews ... or you can self-publish now, using social media or your own website,” he said.

Once you’ve gotten your story out there, Bernstein said to just lay low for a little while. Your main concern will be monitoring to see if new rumors are cropping up and correcting them when they do.

Also, understand that when you interview for a job, it’s pretty certain that the company will know about the incident, so be prepared to talk about it. By observing the chatter online, you can anticipate questions and have good answers to them. But, Bernstein noted, it’s important to be proactive.

Moran said that as bad as this may be, you’re probably not alone. He suggested seeking allies, people who might be able to speak positively about you.

Bernstein estimates that an Internet scandal can last anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on its severity and searchability. After some time has passed, he said you might want to consider reapproaching media outlets that published stories about you and talk about how things have changed since then. It may not completely solve the problem, but it’s something.