How do I tell interviewers that I'm suing my ex-employer?
May 10, 2010 7:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm suing my former job. Should I (How should I) tell folks I'm interviewing with?

I left my former job because they weren't paying me for all the hours I worked. Look, I liked my job a lot and I did a lot of good there - nonprofit sector if it makes a difference - but I can't make a living working for free, or near-free. When they made it clear they had no intention of paying me for all the hours I worked, I resigned and contacted a lawyer to recover the wages I earned but was never paid.

I'm going to win this lawsuit, as it's very clear-cut. But in the meanwhile, I'm interviewing for jobs, and generally interviewers want to know why you've left your old job with nothing lined up... it looks quite suspicious in this economy. Also, I'm a terrible, terrible liar (and omitter).

In a background check, a potential future employer is going to find out about the lawsuit anyway. At what point do I reveal this information, and how should I say it? A script, talking points, etc. would be immensely helpful. I just don't know how to bring up the subject.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, first you don't know that you will win your lawsuit, and even if you do, there's no guarantee of recouping lost wages.

That said, all you need to tell an interviewer is that you were not being paid for the hours you worked at a previous job, and, therefore, you resigned from that job in order to conduct a search for another one.
posted by dfriedman at 7:43 AM on May 10, 2010 [9 favorites]

You can just say that you were working for a nonprofit that lost its funding, so you were forced to move on.
posted by kitty teeth at 7:46 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say you're suing them at all. Just say they weren't paying you for the hours you worked and so you left.
posted by thorny at 7:52 AM on May 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you're bad at lying and hiding stuff, you should figure out exactly how to disclose it. Figure out what's the least you can say about the situation without getting the sweats. (dfriedman's suggestion above seems excellent to me.) At the same time, be prepared to disclose more if they ask - they might. So figure out how to frame your perspective on the situation. Don't be defensive or angry about it - they gypped you, but you're dealing with it and it sounds like you'll win it. If I were your interviewer, I'd be more interested in how you're talking about it and whether it sounds like you overreacted. For me, the fact that you quit in a bad economy would work in your favor - I'd figure, things must've been quite bad for you to leave like that. It's understandable, it happens - employers are not part of a secret employers club (I hope...) where it's always the employee's fault.

Go to a career counselor for interview training or ask a friend to help you arrange a mock session. It helps heaps.
posted by mondaygreens at 7:58 AM on May 10, 2010

In a background check, a potential future employer is going to find out about the lawsuit anyway.
I don't believe this is the case. Most background checks look for criminal convictions, not civil suits in which you are the plaintiff.
posted by sanko at 8:18 AM on May 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think dfriedman and thorny have the right answer. There is no dishonor in standing up for yourself. A good employer will respect this about you, it won't count against you. Only a bad employer, who might like to try the same crap with their own employees, would count it against you.

However, make sure you frame it correctly. Make sure to convey that you don't enjoy the drama of it all, and you reluctantly left because they weren't holding up their end of the bargain.

IF they press you on it, "so you left, huh?? are you planning on doing anything about it?" Use that as an interview question- "yes, I tried to convince them that paying me for the work they asked me to do was the right thing to do, but they disagreed. My only option was to file suit so I could recover my lost wages. I'm not a litigious person, but the amount of back pay that they owed me was such that I had to do something in order to pay my own obligations."
posted by gjc at 8:21 AM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

"They couldn't pay me anymore."
posted by advicepig at 8:28 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why do you believe you owe it to potential employers to explicitly tell them about your lawsuit?

The answer to the question, Why did you leave your previous employer? Is not "Because I'm suing them." Rather, you left because they were not paying you. How you phrase that is up to you, but you can answer honestly without bringing up the lawsuit.

If they are aware that you were not being paid for your work, they will not be shocked to find out--if they find out at all--that you have hired a lawyer to attempt to address your previous employer's illegal actions and recoup the money your previous employer legitimately owes you. (Or, if they are shocked that you are pursuing legal recourse in this situation, that's a serious red flag about this potential employer.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:33 AM on May 10, 2010

I agree, don't bring this up other than to say that your former employer couldn't afford to pay you for hours worked. How you resolve that is your business..

and, no matter what anyone says, the minute the words "sue my previous employer" come out of your mouth, I'm running out and taking a bet out on your not getting that job...
posted by HuronBob at 8:44 AM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a hiring person.

Don't bring it up, don't say anything negative about your previous employer, and under no circumstances ever say the words lawsuit or suing no matter what. If you talk that way about your last employer... well just don't, no matter how accurate it might be. Some people seem to think it's a good idea to slag a previous employer in interviews, but it's never, ever a good idea.

If you're asked why you left, you simply say that the organization didn't have enough funding to cover your hours. Which has the benefit of being pretty dang accurate. Don't imply that they are broke or doing poorly or mismanaged. Don't say anything negative. The money just wasn't there. Shrug.

Ideally you say all this is a light way, in the context of "Well you know how it is with non-profits sometimes..." and that way you even come out sounding like a decent and understanding person.
posted by rokusan at 8:57 AM on May 10, 2010 [11 favorites]

Employment attorney here. I agree with Rokusan. In 100% of my experience, disclosure that you've got a suit/claim against a previous employer is perceived as a huge negative (whether or not it should be) as it gives the new employer concern that they'll be sued next. I'm not suggesting that you lie, but you certainly shouldn't bring it up, as there's just no way that it will help you.

On the plus side, I've never known an HR department to ask if you've filed suit/charges against a previous employer as such questions might lead to a retaliation claim from the applicant. (Idea being that refusing to hire an employee who exercised his rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act or anti-discrimination statutes could be construed as illegeal retaliation). So you shouldn't have to address the issue at all. And I don't expect that the background check would reveal the lawsuit, though I couldn't know.

Really, your biggest problem is how your reference at the old job will respond. You might want to ask your attorney to send your old boss a letter strongly reminding him of the importance of giving a neutral reference (position, dates of hire, salary if you'd like).
posted by seventyfour at 9:53 AM on May 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might want to think about why you've internalized that they might deserve access to that information, if you find it difficult to omit it. You don't have trouble leaving out other personal details of your life (such as private home affairs), because you know that they don't have a right to that information. If you can frame it internally such that it's the same regarding your lawsuit (which it is), you'll feel much less conflicted about giving less information, which makes it much simpler to answer it in a direct way, such as dfriedman suggests, that leaves out the dirty details while simply giving the necessary information.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:59 AM on May 10, 2010

Just thirding rokusan & seventyfour. As a hiring manager I can tell you I think its a really really bad idea to bring up that you are suing your former employer. I have passed on candidates when I learned this type of information. Simply put, I couldn't tell if they had a case or not, I knew none of the details, I really didn't care. All I knew was that the last person to hire the candidate was now in a world of hurt that I wanted no part of.

I would also add that IMHO its a really bad idea to sue them in the first place, just because of the stigma that it will leave, the problems over getting a reference etc. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses quickly and move on, even when you're totally 100% in the right.
posted by Long Way To Go at 12:17 PM on May 10, 2010

Tell them you left because they couldn't afford to pay your for your hours anymore. IANAL or a person who does background checks, but usually these are for criminal convictions and credit checks, not whether you're involved in a civil suit. I don't even think being a party to pending (i.e. not decided and could still potentially settle) litigation would be something you could easily search for or is available in a database somewhere. They could theoretically find out, but it would be a pain in the ass. I also seriously doubt if they contacted your prior employer for a reference, your employer would mention the lawsuit.

You have no obligation to volunteer this information and they aren't going to ask you. So don't.

I would also add that IMHO its a really bad idea to sue them in the first place, just because of the stigma that it will leave, the problems over getting a reference etc. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses quickly and move on, even when you're totally 100% in the right.

And sometimes people need money-- the money they were promised and the money they worked to earn at their job. The OP didn't ask whether she should sue, that ship has sailed.
posted by ishotjr at 2:34 PM on May 10, 2010

What do you have to gain by telling them? Nothing, AFAICanSee.

Then why would you tell them?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:22 PM on May 11, 2010

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