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Q: I'm facing a serious dilemma as I begin to explore the job market. I'm employed in a marketing position at a very reputable entertainment firm. I'm also pursuing a part-time MBA at a local university. My problem is that I have a blemish on my driving record: a DUI, which is considered a misdemeanor.
It occurred nearly two years ago, after a dinner party with some friends. My question is on filling out applications for employment, which often ask about felonies and/or misdemeanors: Do I risk being taken out of the running by admitting to this mistake?
I have attempted to compose a letter explaining what happened. But how does one say enough, without saying too little or too much? What do you suggest? When should one disclose this very personal fact? And how much weight does it carry when I'm interviewing and being considered for a position?
I have no other infractions. If anything, I have an extremely clean record and excellent references that would vouch for me as a mature and responsible person. I would greatly appreciate any advice, as I am soon going out on interviews. -- R.S., Los Angeles
A: First, get a little perspective. While driving drunk is a stupid thing to do, getting caught once hardly means you'll never go far in life. Heck, you could even be President some day. George W. Bush, now the leader of the free world, pleaded guilty to drunk driving in 1976, when, as a rowdy 30-year-old, he got arrested near his family's summer home in Kennebunkport, Me.
"Let's face it, lots of people have DUIs," says attorney Patricia Shiu, vice-president for programs at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco. "It's not a career-ending thing."
That said, a DUI -- or any conviction on your record -- is obviously, as you note, a tricky matter when it comes to applying for jobs. Employers are legally entitled ask applicants about convictions for both misdemeanors and felonies.
However, with a few exceptions, employers cannot inquire about arrests that didn't end in a conviction, Shiu says. (One exception under California law makes it legal for an employer to ask about drug arrests if, for example, an applicant is looking for a job that involves access to drugs and medication.) Generally, "it's the conviction that moves the question from off-limits to permissible," Shiu says.
DON'T LIE, DON'T TELL. Whatever you do, don't lie about a conviction if a prospective employer asks about it on an employment form or during an interview. If you do, and your boss were ever to find out after it you were hired, you'd be kicked out the door in a jiffy -- for lying. "The person could probably be fired immediately," Shiu says.
Unless you're asked, though, there's no need to volunteer the information. There's always a chance that a company may never learn of your record. Not every employer requires you to fill out a formal application, says Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services, a résumé and career-guidance company in Cincinnati.
In the situation you describe, "I don't think it would be unethical to not offer the information," says Tom Welch, president of Stuart (Fla.) career-coaching service Career Dimensions and the author of Work Happy, Live Healthy. But, he adds: "Obviously, if you had continuous DUIs and you were applying to be a salesman who would be driving a lot, that would be a different story." Then, adds Welch, "it would be unethical not to talk about it."
BACKGROUND CHECKS. Keep in mind, moreover, that it's always possible a prospective employer will discover your DUI. The reams of forms typically filled out during the first few days on the job could ask about misdemeanors or felonies. In addition, more and more employers today are ordering background checks before they put recruits on the payroll. If such a check included a search of Motor Vehicles Dept. records, your DUI would probably pop up.
In fact, DUI convictions can stay on your record for seven years or more, says Steve Kohler, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in Sacramento. Adds Kursmark: "You obviously can't keep your head in the sand and assume that it will never come up."
Here's how our experts think you should deal with this issue. Don't compose a separate letter or use your cover letter to explain your misdeed. You don't want to give a prospective employer a reason to eliminate you from consideration right off the bat. "Can a DUI impair your ability to add value or solve problems for an employer? No," says Welch. "But could someone use a DUI as a screening tool? Absolutely."
WHAT TO SAY, AND WHEN. Obviously, the time to discuss the DUI is when the interviewer brings it up. Otherwise, Welch says, wait to give your side of the story until you are far enough along in the interview process -- which means just after the interviewer has scanned your employment application (if you have to complete one that requires you to mention the DUI) or just before a background check. Welch suggests a quick spiel such as, "You are going to find a perfectly clean record with one minor exception. A couple of years ago I had a DUI after a party. I just wanted to make you aware of that so everything is up-front."
Don't dwell on the subject in an interview, which should be focused on what you can do for the company, not on an incident that clearly wasn't one of your prouder moments. But it can't hurt to reassure an employer that the DUI was far from typical behavior on your part, Kursmark says. You "could say something such as, 'I certainly learned a lesson,'" says Kursmark. "'It was a very stupid thing. I will never do it again.'"
Overall, the DUI will be a relatively minor issue in your job search, our experts say. So don't sweat it too much. Not to downplay the gravity of the offense, but, unfortunately, many people drink and drive. "It's not like ripping off a convenience store," Welch says.
RELATIVE VALUES. Your main job in an interview will be to sell yourself as the best marketer, or whatever your target position is. "The more value you can bring to the organization, and the more excited the employer gets about having you on their team, the less meaning the DUI has," Welch adds.
One more thing to consider. You're in the entertainment biz, which is legendary for its tolerance of indiscretions, past and present. "I wouldn't try to go to work for MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving]," Welch says. But your mistake may turn out to be no big deal if you stay in Hollywood. The primary penalty you'll pay in that case is, you may have to work a little harder than someone with a blemish-free record to show an employer you're truly the right person for the job.
Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at email@example.com, or write to Ask Careers, Business Week Online, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, 46th Floor, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity. By Eric Wahlgren in New York