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Influencer QA

Shady Past Seeking a White-Collar Job

Dear Crucial Skills,

Do you have any advice for someone who is looking for a white-collar job and has a conviction in his record? How and when should he or she bring it to the attention of the potential employer?

Timing is Everything

Dear Timing,

You ask a great question. And while many readers might not be in your exact position, I think all of us have been in a similar situation. It may be that we’re applying for a job and have to explain a long period of unemployment on our resume. It could be that we’re in a performance review and need to put a disastrous project in the context of our larger year’s work. Or perhaps it’s pitching a proposal to a client who might find a gap in our credentials worrisome. Hopefully the advice I offer below will be valuable to people in a variety of situations where they need to acknowledge a fly in their ointment.

Let’s answer the easy questions first. Then I’ll offer a social science principle as a guide for your ultimate decision on timing.

First, you have to bring up your conviction as soon as legally required. For example, if you are asked a direct question in an interview or are required to fill out a form, of course you must disclose whatever you’re legally required to share.

Second, you must do it soon. If you wait too long, you risk the potential employer feeling manipulated or deceived.

Third, with that said, you want to wait to bring it up until you’ve established a mental frame of who you are in the employer’s mind that is much larger than the past offense you committed.

To illustrate the psychological principle behind this, I invite you to try the experiment at this website before reading further. It will take about three minutes and is a lot of fun.

Spoiler alert: If you read further before trying the experiment, you won’t enjoy the video!


If you won’t be watching the video, here’s the gist of it. University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons created a video experiment in which six people—three wearing black shirts and three wearing white—pass a basketball to those wearing the same color shirt. Viewers are asked to count how many times the ball is passed by those wearing white shirts. After a minute, subjects report their count. Then, they are asked if they saw anything unusual. Shockingly, the majority report that they saw nothing other than the black- and white-shirted players passing balls. This is so shocking because when they are invited to view the video again, they are stunned to discover that in the midst of the basketball melee, a person in a gorilla suit walks slowly into the very center of the scene, pounds his chest, then saunters off—and they never saw it!

Human beings use heuristics to improve mental efficiency and decision-making. We distill complex realities into simple rules of thumb. When we’re trying to get a handle on a person sitting in front of us, we develop simple labels such as punctual, athletic, lazy, or likeable. These labels act like an instruction to the brain—watch for basketball passes between white-shirted people—that cause us to filter out data that distract from the simple task we’ve created. From this point forward, we suffer and benefit from selective perception. We can even miss a huge gorilla in the center of our visual field because we’re looking only for information that fits our heuristic.

If you share a psychologically significant piece of data early in your relationship with a potential employer—I won the Nobel prize for literature, or I spent twelve years in a state prison—you’ll establish just such a label that will make it likely that additionally significant information could be discounted or ignored.

My suggestion is that you ensure you have shared memorable positive information early in the relationship that helps distract from the gorilla you’re about to have prance onto the scene. And make sure you share it in a way that is sticky for the interviewers.

In our book, Influencer, we have a chapter called Change How You Change Minds. Our key recommendation is that you master storytelling if you want to learn how to influence strongly held perceptions and move people to action. This principle works every bit as well in a hiring situation. Those who avoid spending time on the facts and figures of their lives and tell two or three compelling stories that communicate who they are as a unique and special human being are far more convincing.

So, come up with your “three people passing a basketball” that you’ll focus your prospect’s attention on. Identify two or three potent stories that introduce them meaningfully to what is special about you. Then let the gorilla walk on the scene and hope they’ll keep it in proportion.