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How to Explain a Blemish in Your Background During an Interview

Some of us have a mistake or blip in our background which invariably will come up during an interview process.  A DUI 6 years ago? 7 month employment gap? One year below quota? One of the best hires I ever made had a misdemeanor in college for public intoxication.  His key (and potentially your key) in getting past that is how the interviewer’s questions are handled.  Here’s my list of top ways to deep six your chances of earning the next step in the interview process.


The more you talk, the more I know you’re nervous about this topic and the more I wonder what else you’re trying to cover up.  Your long-winded answer tips me off that you’re not comfortable with this topic which invariably makes me feel even more uncomfortable about your answer.  It also leaves me to wonder what really happened.  Even if I don’t worry too much about the issue at this point I now find you insecure.  With every word that you utter you’re creating two additional problems for yourself.  1. You are leaving less time to talk about how you might help me reach our customers and potentially sell some stuff.  2.  The more time we spend talking about your issues the bigger an impression this leaves on me.  Sometimes it becomes all that I remember as in “Oh yeah, you mean the DUI guy.”


A too short answer convinces me that you’re hiding something.  This prompts a series of more and more questions from me on the topic which will invariably put you on the defensive and/or cause you to come across as dismissive (even if there isn’t a true problem at the bottom of this issue).  Being defensive or dismissive never leaves a good impression.  Either way, I’m now as concerned with you as I am with your friend the over explainer.

Half-stories and/or Excuses

Telling me a half-story or giving an excuse is a great way to get me to start questioning your answer.  For example:   “I would have made quota if our company could only support what we sell.”   I’m going to follow up with “Can you explain?” You “I sold a huge deal and my company just doesn’t do a very good job delivering with large customers.  Our support team screwed it up and the deal blew up.  It was worth 25% of my year’s quota.” My follow up… “Why did you trust your year to a deal that you knew your company was going to have a hard time delivering on?

So how should you handle tough questions?

Be Prepared

If you missed quota, expect a savvy interviewer to question you about it.  Think through the situation and be ready to speak to it concisely, transparently and effectively.

Own it

Address the issue head on.  “I did miss quota in 2011 and it still upsets me.  I made a critical mistake going after larger clients in 2011.”

Explain What You Learned

“Our company’s core competency is delivering value to small-to-medium sized clients.  As I advanced in my selling abilities I was able to get into larger clients with much bigger contract values.  In 2011 I sold a huge deal that our company wasn’t able to deliver on and they ultimately cancelled the contract.  I learned a lot from that experience and made sure in 2012 and 2013 to get back to what we do well.  That focus is why I was well above quota in those years.”

Check in and Move on

Clarify with the hiring manager that he/she understands the situation, has enough information and is comfortable with happened.  If you get a nod or yes move on and get back to discussing your strengths and talents.

In closing, I’ve never seen a candidate win a job interview by discussing their demerits but I’ve seen far too many lose out.  As you’re thinking through the potential red flags in your own background map out and practice how you’re going to handle them.  The alternative leaves a lot to be desired.


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Chris Carlson

My name is Chris Carlson and I’m the founder and President of Sales Talent. This blog grew out of my desire to document and share what I’ve learned in my two plus decades of sales recruiting and leading Sales Talent. Our posts are aimed at sales professionals and leaders that speaks to talent selection, team building, or career advancement. If you have a topic that you’d like my take on, please reach out to me.

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