A Monster Member Asks: I was wrongly fired over a dispute about our petty cash account from a job I'd held for six years. At the time, an attorney told me I had a strong case against the company. I didn't pursue the lawsuit, because I felt it was best to get on with my life. In the interim, the company went out of business. I need to change jobs again, and since I don't have any references from the job I was fired from, I can't get interviews. I'm really worried. Should I tell potential employers about what happened in a cover letter, or should I wait until the interview to explain what happened?
What the Expert Says: First off, there's no reason for you not to be able to get an interview because you were wrongly fired four years ago. In general, you get called in for an interview, and references aren't checked until you get close to a job offer. It's possible you're using this as an excuse to slow down your job hunt. Or you fear what will happen if a potential employer finds out you were fired. Either way, you need to clear your head and set a strategy so you can land a terrific job.
It's funny how well-intentioned people want to clear the air by telling potential employers about something bad that happened in an old job that wasn't their fault. Unfortunately, what starts as a clearing-the-air explanation usually turns into something that sounds more like a guilty confession to a potential employer, which of course turns the potential employer off.
It starts out like this:
"I don't have a reference from my last job, because my boss wrongfully fired me over a misunderstanding about the petty cash account."
"You stole from petty cash?"
"Well, not exactly. You see, my boss needed something on Friday, and so I took $50 more than…"
"You stole from petty cash?"
"No, no, we did it every week…"
"You stole from petty cash every week?"
"No, I just borrowed money for the weekend that I'd intended to return on Monday after my paycheck cleared. But my boss wanted to borrow from petty cash as well, see, so there was no money there, because I'd borrowed it and…"
"So your boss couldn't steal from petty cash because you stole from petty cash?"
"Yes. I mean -- no. I mean, well, we always did that on Fridays, and anyhow, I was fired. But I could have sued them because…wah wah wah…"
The point is you'll only end up sounding like the bad guy if you try to explain a previous situation that was negative. So don't damage yourself -- in a cover letter or interview -- by explaining something you don't need to bring up.
In fact, you are one lucky fired ex-employee. Your old company doesn't even exist anymore, which means it'll be hard for a potential employer to track down your records. What you need to do is track down a former colleague or manager from the old company -- someone who knows your work. Call that person and explain your predicament; ask if you can use him as a reference.
In the interim, focus your efforts on impressing the potential employer during the interviewing process. Work hard on your interview skills, professional appearance and ability to wow an interviewer. Many hiring decisions are made based on the chemistry between the interviewer and interviewee.