Sometimes your professional past isn't as squeaky clean as you'd like. You might have an embarrassing gap between jobs, or maybe you were fired and worry about how to explain that to potential employers. Interviews are like landmines: How do you avoid those areas of discrepancy on your resume or put yourself in a positive light, despite your past mistakes?
1. Avoid the temptation to lie. Lying never got anyone the job, so resist the urge to cover up your past errors. Instead, try to avoid the topic unless your interviewer brings it up. "Don't be the one to bring up any weak points in your work history, but if they do come up, handle them gracefully," says Keren Douek, director of recruitment services at JobDreaming.com. "Don't lie, but don't linger, either. Answer any questions directly, but don't feel the need to elaborate too much or go into a great amount of detail."
2. Focus on the positive. Your interviewer doesn't expect you to be perfect, so don't try to sweep your mistakes under the rug. Instead, guide the conversation to what you learned from your mistakes, says Amit De, CEO and co-founder of Careerleaf.
"Along with honesty, job seekers should directly assess what they learned from the experience and how they have improved. They can also talk about the plan they have set in place for these actions to never occur again."
3. Be prepared. The worst thing you could do in an interview is stumble when you're asked about the blemish on your resume. Instead, Nicole Lindsay of DiversityMBAPrep.com says, "be prepared with a response. Expect that the question item will come up."
Lindsay says it's a good idea to consult with a mentor or peer to determine the best way to describe the issue so that it doesn't send up red flags for a potential employer. Having a succinct way of explaining what happened can keep you from being embarrassed, and most employers will simply move on to the next question.
4. Find the best wording. Sometimes it's not what you say, but how you say it. Lindsay says you should "use words that minimize the magnitude of the issue—use 'let go' instead of 'fired,' use 'not forthright' instead of 'lied.'" Smoother wording can help you even out bumps in your background.
5. Be the bigger person. It can be tempting to dive into a he said/she said situation, especially if you feel you weren't in the wrong. But you should resist. Douek says: "Be the bigger person. If you're asked about a negative work experience or a business relationship that didn't end well, don't get petty or get caught up telling your side of the story. Keep your explanation simple and light. You don't want to come across as bitter, even if you secretly are.
6. If you were fired ... There's no need to go into detail as to why you were let go, unless a potential employer asks point blank. Again, use softer wording, and focus on your accomplishments rather than the negatives of your past work history.
7. End on a positive note. What you want a hiring manager to remember about you is how great you are, and why you're qualified for this role. "Regardless of the topic, come up with a way to give it a positive spin, Douek says. "If you were let go from a previous position, you could talk about how you gained so much from the experience, you understand why they had to make cutbacks, or how the timing was right for you because you were ready for the next step in your career," she says.
Bottom line is: The "problem spots" on your resume should not be huge issues if you're qualified and enthusiastic about the job. Don't dwell on mistakes you've made in the past. That way, the employer won't either.
Corrected on 11/21/2012: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote. It’s Amit De, CEO and co-founder of Careerleaf, who gives advice on how to focus on the positive during an interview.
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs.com, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.