Let’s say you once worked at a prestigious tech firm, the kind of place where the CEO seemed to end up on the covers of glossy business magazines every quarter, and the stock rose with the rollout of each new product. At some point, though, things went sour. Maybe it was a sexual harassment scandal that resulted in the termination of the whole C-suite, or a bad roadmap that produced products that nobody wanted.
Whatever the root cause, the company is increasingly viewed as toxic by the outside world. And that presents you, the intrepid tech pro, with a major career issue: how do you best explain your tenure at that failed firm to prospective employers?
Before we plunge into the nuances of résumé-building and interviewing, it’s important to note that few firms, if any, are toxic enough to wreck your chances at landing a new position. Although some companies do commit missteps, that’s usually not a reflection on the dedication and skill of their employees—and the majority of prospective employers recognize that fact. (There are exceptions, of course: if you’re the head accountant at a firm famous for committing massive financial fraud, someone might question your ethics.)
If you worked at the toxic firm for a significant length of time, you have no choice but to put it on your résumé; recruiters and hiring managers have a habit of asking about significant gaps in a candidate’s work experience.
First, don’t use the limited space in your cover letter and résumé to explain or apologize for your previous firm. If the company famously withered in the face of fierce competition, or flubbed its pivot into a new category, chances are good that the person reviewing your materials will already know about it. (The technology industry is small enough for word about spectacular failures to get around.) And unless you were a top-level executive, that failure isn’t on you—save your space for other things.
Next, emphasize the results of your individual actions. Did you automate processes that saved the company a lot of money? Launch a mobile app ahead of schedule? Figure out how to streamline the QA process? Make sure to show your impact; doing so will convey, however implicitly, that you kept succeeding even as the overall company went down.
If you worked for a division within the company that posted spectacular numbers, in contrast with the rest of the firm’s fortunes, you might consider highlighting the overall unit’s growth or other success metrics. Bigger companies in mid-collapse often have at least one thing on one team going well.
While the résumé portion of this issue is pretty straightforward, the job interview could offer some unexpected twists.
Human beings are curious animals. The interviewer may want the scoop on what exactly happened at the toxic firm; if they’re pushing the bounds of professionalism, they may prod you for juicier details, such as who said what to whom, or a rundown of spectacularly bad behavior. (If you worked for a firm that made the news because employees did something really improper, like steal a party bus during an all-hands meeting and drive it into a hotel pool, you should assume a better-than-average chance of such questions popping up.)
Resist the urge to participate in that sort of discussion. If asked directly for details you consider out-of-bounds, deflect. You weren’t at that party; you only knew that misbehaving executive from meetings. Turn the conversation back to your goals accomplished and skills learned.
If you were at a particular company during the “bad” period, the interviewer may ask you why you decided to stay. For best results, use this as an opportunity to explain your dedication to a project or your colleagues.
If you’re in mid-career, there will be lots of other things in your background for the interviewer to focus on, and they will (hopefully) turn to other subjects in short order.
Tech pros who know their stuff, and have the right kind of skills, will find a toxic company in their background to be a nuisance at worst. With tech-industry unemployment so low, and tech firms hungry for the right kind of talent, most hiring managers and recruiters are interested in what you can do, not where you worked a few years ago.