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How Do You Handle a Negative Mark on Your Military Record?

by Heidi Lynn Russell, Contributing Editor

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Interviewers at the San Diego Zoo are trained to spot liars.

“All interviews are structured. We ask the same questions with some fluctuations,” says Tim Mulligan, Chief Human Resources (HR) Officer. “The training helps interviewers know when someone is not giving an honest example of what they’ve done. Our managers do a good job of sniffing out who is not honest.”

Although the zoo is actively recruiting veterans because of their reputation for high moral character, Mulligan notes some may have incidents in their military records that they would like to hide. Other service members embellish the truth of their military job or certifications (easy to do, given the differences with military terms vs. those in the civilian world).
Here are some examples of “black marks” in your record and what to do about them.

Unplanned Discharge from Service

Understand that to the civilian world, there is a big difference between “criminal” discharges versus “performance” discharges, says Ret. Army Lt. Col. Whitney Paul Allen Jr. He is Senior Regional Veteran Connector for Where Opportunity Knox, an organization that connects veterans with jobs in the Kentucky-Indiana-Ohio region.

“We let people out of the Army because of weight. In any other job in the civilian world, weight isn’t held against you anymore. We release people for not passing a physical fitness test,” Allen says.
However, when it comes to jobs involving integrity or trust (law enforcement, first responders and government jobs), be honest and straightforward about the reason for your discharge, even if you run the risk of not being hired, Allen says.

“You need to put what happened down,” he adds. “If you’re discharged for failing a PT test or medically for asthma, that’s okay. Most times, it’s honorable.”

A Criminal Charge

When it comes to being discharged for a criminal reason, such as shoplifting or a DUI, discuss it. “Explain in detail what happened. (For example) ‘I was young. It was early in my career. I overcame it,’” Allen says.

Don’t put the criminal matter in a cover letter or resume, but if you know it will be uncovered in a background check, bring it up to the recruiter.

“Most people will appreciate you being honest and straightforward. It will come up as a flag. If you don’t bring it up, they will wonder,” he says. “Some minor things are just minor and we get it. If it’s major, we need to know and you go from there. You walk out the door with a clear conscience and leave it up to the HR person.”

He adds that It’s probably best to bring these things up in a face-to-face interview versus a phone-screening interview. “The phone screen is just preliminary,” Allen says.

Gross Negligence

Suppose you were cleaning a rifle in your tent and it accidentally discharged. The bullet ricocheted and hit a comrade.

Or you used the wrong lubricating oil in your equipment, the transmission melted and it was out of commission for five weeks.

Or even worse, you went off the plan on a convoy in Iraq and someone died.

“If anything bad has happened, take ownership, but do not talk about it without discussing
the lesson learned and what you did to course correct,” says Tim Mossholder, Navy veteran and Project Manager for Candidate Services at recruiting firm Bradley-Morris, Inc., the parent company of and MilitaryTransition News.

You should be able to demonstrate that since the time of the incident, you focused on specific things you did to improve yourself and prove that you had matured. You should be able to outline steps you took to mitigate any future problems, Mossholder says.

An Embellishment of Service

Sometimes veterans aren’t worried about a black mark on their records, but instead, what isn’t on their records, such as a certification or education degree. Or they add a commendation or honor to their resume that never happened.

CSM Benny Kinsey, Ret., is a senior recruiter for GM. During a phone screen, a candidate claimed he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor due to 1993 service in Mogadishu, Somalia.

“I told him that I did not remember his name as one of the Medal of Honor Recipients from that year or that conflict. He immediately told me it was a mistake and that he did not prepare his resume; he paid a service to put his resume together for him,” Kinsey says.

“During the discussion, I told him that may be true, but we are still responsible for the information contained in our resumes. He promised he would take it off of his resume and I thanked him for offering to do that,” Kinsey continues. “He was quite embarrassed about the entire ordeal.”

To that point, Mulligan at the San Diego Zoo notes that before committing to a falsehood, be aware that interviewers are not operating in a vacuum.

“We have a rating system. We have two interviewers. They have to agree on each question. Those who do the best get the job,” Mulligan says. “I would say the people who are not as honest or forthright, they don’t score as highly. My advice is that if you’re coming from the military, if I’m the interviewer, I want to see complete honesty.”

Heidi Lynn Russell writes about employment and business issues.

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