By Eve Tahmincioglu contributor
updated 1/5/2007 7:37:45 PM ET 2007-01-06T00:37:45

Everyone who’s job hunting probably wants to start with a clean slate this new year, but some of us have pasts that can’t easily be erased.

When you apply for a job these days, your life becomes an open book. Employers do everything they can to find out about you and your past work life, everything from calling your references to doing criminal background checks and personality tests. So a past impropriety or false accusation can haunt you for years to come.

Maybe you were fired for harassing a coworker. Maybe you had credit problems. All these things can be used against you when a hiring manager is deciding whether to give you an offer.

Companies are increasingly looking at your past when you apply for a job, and sometimes the things they find important have nothing to do with the position you’re applying for, says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. Unfortunately, he adds, “there’s not much you can do to avoid being penalized for your past.”

But there are some ways to mitigate the fallout and possibly get yourself hired despite your history.

Here are some recent questions from readers:

I graduated from college over a year ago.  I got a degree in psychology and a minor in criminology. I love criminology.  I tried to get a job at the juvenile hall department, but I didn't pass my background check.  I believe it's because of my credit being so bad.  So I don't know what to do with myself. I'm at a job that doesn't pay much.  I want a career in my field, but my credit is so bad. When I didn't get that job, I cried for a whole weekend.  I need some direction. Can you help?
-- V.G., Milpitas, Calif.

It’s a mystery why they care about your credit history for this job, but hey, we have to deal with what’s at hand.

If an employer uses a third party to check out your credit or driving record, they have to ask you to authorize such a search. In this case, if the information they uncover leads them to not hire you or to retract a job offer, they must give you written notice of such a decision under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, says labor attorney Ian Meklinsky in Princeton, N.J.

This gives a job applicant the opportunity to check out their own credit report and find out if there were any errors. (If the employer asks you to provide a copy of your credit report yourself, you don’t get the same type of legal protections.)

In your case, since you know your credit is bad, you need to be upfront with any employer who says they are going to do a credit check. Tell them right away about your past credit history, so it’s not a surprise. Try and come up with a good, simple explanation. Don’t bore them with extra details about your personal life. Just say, “I had this issue, but now I’m on track to get my credit back to good standing.”

And though it’s hard to get on the right track without a job, stop using credit and start paying down those balances as soon as possible. As you found out, credit reports are not only used by loan officers these days.

I was fired from my job previous to my current one for sexual harassment.  That is the blunt explanation.  When I was told about the charges, I know that I said things to both of them that, if taken completely out of context and just written on a piece of paper, were improper for me to say to a co-worker.  No question.  But at no time did I ever say anything to either of them that was out of context for the conversation that was happening.

Now, for my question. ...  I generally list my reason for leaving this job as "Laid Off."  A majority of my interviewers have not questioned me beyond that. One potential job offer was taken away from me because they found out through checking job history about the reason I was fired. I can't imagine getting any job offer after telling them "I was fired for sexual harassment," but I don't want to lose credibility by having a company find out about it on their own.

What do you think is the best way for me to handle this?
D.E., Mustang, Okla.

Since you were not convicted of a crime, your former employer has no right to tell anyone that you were fired for sexual harassment.

“There was no trial. There was just an accusation,” says Los Angeles attorney Laura P. Worsinger. That means, what your former employer is doing is “totally defamatory and libelous.”

So, what you need to do now is contact your former boss, preferably through an attorney, and have him or her make it clear in a letter or by telephone that since you were not convicted of a crime, saying you were fired for harassment will get them in legal hot water. You need to insist that this former supervisor stop telling prospective hiring managers about the circumstances of your firing.

“Most employers want to be careful not to get sued,” she explains.

When they ask you why you left your last gig, just keep it short and sweet: “The environment just wasn’t right for me, so I moved on.”

And in the future, keep any seemingly personal or sexual comments to yourself. I’m not going to get into what you said or didn’t say, but the bottom line is that some women, for better or worse, can be quite sensitive, so discuss non-work topics at your peril.

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