Can Employees Distance Themselves from BP?


Three months ago, BP managed to do what some thought was impossible. No, I’m not talking about the possibility that they’ve single-handedly destroyed the entire Gulf Coast, although that is pretty impressive in its own right. Rather, BP successfully unseated Goldman Sachs as the most hated company in the America.

At the time, Goldman was under fire from consumers and lawmakers for deceiving investors and betting against the housing market. Americans took to the streets to protest what they saw as greed and insensitivity from Goldman and other Wall Street institutions and Rolling Stone published a lengthy piece explaining how Goldman was responsible for pretty much all U.S. economic crises during the past decade. Then, on April 20, one of BP’s oil well exploded and blotted out all of the Goldman headlines. Suddenly, America had a new public enemy #1.

As the Wall Street Journal noted last month, “To be sure, Goldman’s reputation has been tarnished… But that can’t compete with the images of oil drenched pelicans and the underwater geyser that keeps spewing and spewing.”

While it’s easy to lash out against big businesses for the mistakes they’ve made, it does have an unfortunate side effect. What happens to all the employees who work at these companies in positions that have little or nothing to do with the controversies at hand? There are stories of Goldman employees cowering at their desks, too scared to even go out for lunch in the daytime. BP employees are careful to shed any clothes bearing the company logo when out in public. And last year, when AIG was the subject of public outrage over the bailout and subsequent bonuses, employees feared for their lives after receiving death threats.

Of course, this level of public outrage is usually short-lived, but in the long term, being associated with a company that has been the subject of a scandal of this magnitude could affect your ability to find work elsewhere. “There has been a century of corporate scandals in this country,” said Matthew Rothenberg, editor-in-chief of TheLadders, a career site focusing on senior-level professionals. “But the situation can be a personal opportunity if you can navigate it properly and weather the storm.” We asked Rothenberg for a few tips on how to make this happen.

1. Don’t Misrepresent Yourself

If you’ve worked at a particularly controversial company, your initial urge might be to just omit that company from your resume, but according to Rothenberg, that’s generally a bad move. “You can’t misrepresent yourself. If you’ve been at a job for longer than six months, it’s really not acceptable to take it off your resume completely,” he said.

Instead, you basically have two options. You can either be deliberately vague about the company when applying for a job (for example, Rothenberg suggests you might refer to BP as a “major energy company”) just to get past the first stage in the screening process. Or you can just be honest about where you worked. While it may turn off some employers, Rothenberg says that others may be intrigued. “You’re likely to stimulate some curiosity from employers. They may just want to pull you in to gossip about the company,” he said. After all, in most cases, “you only have about 15 seconds” to catch the attention of the person looking over your application, and this may do it.

2. Distance Yourself from the Scandal, But Don’t Bad-Mouth Your Employer

When you are applying for a job, your biggest task will be to distance yourself from the scandal.  “Let’s consider BP. It’s a huge company and there’s all kinds of different divisions in there. If you’re not involved in the safety review of the gulf, you can cite a distance between yourself and that particular issue,” Rothenberg said. At the same time, he cautions against bad-mouthing your employer, as this too will reflect poorly on you. Instead, he says your application must be aimed at distinguishing “your brand from the tarnished company’s brand.”

3. Build Your Personal Brand

In order to build your personal brand, you’ll need to emphasize your own “personal integrity and your ability to handle a crisis.” Beyond this, you’ll have to rely on most of the same tricks that all job hunters use. Rothenberg recommends networking with professionals in your industry and securing good references. “It’s more important than ever to have excellent references from unaffiliated companies who can vouch for your skills and integrity.” Without a strong personal brand, Rothenberg warns that you could end up like Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who is now delivering pizzas.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the Credit Center.

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