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Small business

Making work histories history

November 30, 2012

Imagine this. Your boss gets you into an office, sits you down, and tells you there are some serious allegations you need to answer. No, not about your current job. This particular interrogation is in regards to your last job, the one you held with your previous employer. Or perhaps even the one before that. Or, as the case may be, a job you held 17 years ago. (You know where this is going, right?)

At what point does an employee’s history become just that? History. In the Julia Gillard example, she is being asked to account for ancient actions irrespective of her performance in her current position as prime minister.

And the reality is that many of the armchair critics demanding Gillard’s resignation are the sensitive souls most likely to crumble when given negative feedback in their present job, let alone one they held two decades ago.

That’s why it was so unfair back in 2007 when Michael Coutts-Trotter, upon being made director-general of the NSW Department of Education, was attacked by the opposition and the Teachers Federation. 

It was revealed he had once been in prison for a narcotics offence, arrested at a time when he was also a heroin user. Even though he had since recovered, the accusations were still flung precipitately from the moral do-gooders, claiming Coutts-Trotter had a history too dark for such an influential role.

He served in the role regardless. And he performed so impressively that, last year, when Barry O’Farrell was elected premier and subsequently cleaned out the public service, Coutts-Trotter was one of the few Labor appointments to be kept on, becoming director-general of the Department of Finance and Services.

When explaining his decision, O’Farrell said: “I and my colleagues will always look for people who have merit, for people who can do the job.”

Yes! Isn’t that what it should always be about? O’Farrell has intelligently articulated that what matters is merit; what counts is ability; and what determines future accomplishments is talent and dedication, not some outdated transgressions (from which people have since learned and improved).

Who cares if, once upon a time, someone was a jailbird or a prostitute or a drug addict or a bankrupt or whatever other violation deemed naughty enough for the purposes of rejecting a job application? I’d rather hire a reformed criminal than many of the indolent no-hopers with clean histories who have inhabited my teams in the past.

A couple of months ago in the United States, a high school counselor named Tiffani Webb was fired despite 12 years of service, a doctorate in clinical psychology, and an excellent reputation. 

Why was she sacked? Because photos emerged of her in lingerie, taken from a previous career as a model. The school deemed the pictures inappropriate even though they were 17 years old. Of course, now she’s suing.

It’s that kind of mentality – one that disregards an employee’s positive attributes – that makes companies miss out on amazing candidates. Many of these companies then complain about skills shortages when some of those shortages could be alleviated by removing biases from the recruitment process.

That’s what we’re seeing in politics. People with talent, with something of value to contribute, shun a political career because of the inevitable way their history will be dug up, exposed, and judged instead of celebrated for its diversity and the lessons it has taught. That leaves us with politicians who may have a spotless record but don’t truly represent the lives and experiences of their constituents.

The great thing about business is that it doesn’t need to be like that. 

Do employees' work histories really matter? Leave a comment.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

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