BusinessCompany NewsScandal survival guide

Scandal survival guide

The oil reserves scandal at Shell may have left FD Judy Boynton with egg on her face, but the consensus is that her career remains unscathed. The same cannot be said of WorldCom's Scott Sullivan. We look at the etiquette of surviving workplace scandal.

As years go, 2004 was a premier cru in the world of corporate scandals. Even as early as January, corporate lawyers across the US were anticipating the prospect of a number of high-profile casualties.

From Martha Stewart’s insider dealing charges to the fiasco surrounding Frank Quattrone’s court case for obstructing the course of justice at Credit Suisse First Boston, last year certainly maintained gossip levels on the business pages. The list of scandals continues of course: WorldCom’s former chief financial officer Scott Sullivan; John Rigas at Adelphia Communication; not to mention the labyrinthine catastrophe that befell Enron.

All of these embarrassments have very differing circumstances, but many corporate scandals tend to follow a similar theme. Although a number of individuals are likely to be involved in the scandal itself, more often than not, only one person is singled out. And it is even more likely that they will be sacked, or forced to resign in disgrace.

Years ago, this would often have meant the end of a career in high-profile business – but it is increasingly clear to a number of employers and recruiters that scandals aren’t always clear-cut. Being embroiled in one needn’t mean that your career is over.

If you have been involved in a corporate scandal, the primary rule is to remember that there is no specific way to deal with the consequences. Repercussions depend almost entirely on how close you were to the events, and how deeply involved, and it is vitally important that you are prepared to adapt to whatever may be forthcoming.

Although there is no way of knowing what may be in store, there are some more general tactics you can employ to make sure that your career doesn’t hit a brick wall once the dust has settled.

The first rule of thumb is that honesty is the best policy. It’s a tired maxim, but also very true. Human nature dictates – and that includes recruiters and prospective employers – that people will tend to assume the worst from those who hide.

With reportage of current affairs reaching saturation point, and a tabloid interest in any corporate wrongdoing piqued to the extreme, it can be very difficult for the accused to get their side of the argument across.

A good recruiter can help a candidate to do just that, pulling out the truth from the morass of fiction spun by the press, but liars will be quickly found out and blacklisted from the recruitment process. It is therefore essential to tell the truth when you are starting back out on the career trail.

Admittedly, not all facts will be the sort that you would happily disclose on a CV. Bad news may sell millions of newspapers – but it is unlikely to win you a face-to-face interview with an employer if it is on your CV. Recruiters should be able to help you decide the best tack, as they will have a much clearer insight into what it is that makes their client tick.

But above all, make sure that you maintain your integrity. Answer any question with honesty and openness, be that at interview or in discussion with your recruiter.

Staying positive and thinking laterally will make it possible for you to bounce back from any situation in your career, no matter how difficult. Most success stories following corporate scandals tend to be achieved within different sectors of the market, so if you have transferable skills, it is worth identifying which sectors of the market you can contribute to. This will enable you to achieve, more or less, a fresh start.

Salacious though it may be, gossip sticks around for a long time, and people in the sector in which you have previously worked are more likely to continue talking negatively about the event for much longer than those outside of it.

Being honest with recruiters and employers is vital, but it’s equally essential to be honest with yourself. If, deep down, you know that a skills shortage on your part in some way contributed to this scandal, you need to address this immediately. If you genuinely don’t have the skills for a project or specific role, you should change the direction of your job search to ensure that the same mistake does not occur twice. Most businesses can see past one massive error on your part – but two similar mistakes demonstrate a worrying trend with which employers will struggle.

You shouldn’t always view this experience as wholly negative. There are always a number of companies undergoing a turnaround and they are often looking for the skills and experience that those who have been through a tough situation have gained.

It is worth taking time to look at the positives that may have arisen from this incident, be it what you have learnt – for good or bad – or how you have developed in terms of crisis management. Single those positives out and push them at interview. There are, after all, a number of wildly successfully entrepreneurs who would concur that to achieve success, you have to first understand failure.

Never discount what you can offer to a business. Plenty of people have come back from very tough situations and often, alongside some weaknesses, there are strengths that many organisations will desire. Focus on your capabilities and make sure that you are promoting them to the full, as there is usually a route to a comeback. Just ask Nick Leeson, a man still enjoying regular public speaking commitments and online poker tournaments despite bringing down Barings Bank back in 1995. There is almost always a way back.

Justin Hobday is a director of executive recruitment company Harvey Nash.

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