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Can you make a comeback from a career scandal?

Kaitlin Madden, CareerBuilder Writer

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If you want to know how to kill your career, all you need to do it turn on the news. Whether it's Lindsay Lohan's hard-partying ways, Arnold Schwarzenegger's secret mistress or Charlie Sheen's life in general, it seems like not a month goes by without news breaking of another politician, actress or high-powered businessman involved in a scandal.

Oddly enough, though, there is also something that can be learned from watching some of these celebrity train wrecks unfold: That no matter how badly you screw up your career, it is possible to make a comeback (see: Britney Spears, Martha Stewart).

Roy Cohen, a career coach, former outplacement consultant for Goldman Sachs, and author of "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide," has helped many people get their careers back on track after life-changing events -- including major mistakes. Here, he shares the stories of two former clients, both of whom found themselves in career-ending scandals, but managed to pick themselves up and become successful in new fields.

The disbarred lawyer

"A former client of mine was a disbarred attorney," Cohen says. "He was in private practice as a junior partner with two very high profile partners. His partners were accused of, and sent to jail for, bribing public officials. He was not privy to what they were doing and was shocked when all this came down. Although my client was innocent and unaware of their activities, by virtue of association, he was forced by the state to resign from the bar or face disbarment. He chose the former."

The comeback

Cohen met his client about a year later, when he was trying to get back on his feet. The man had taken some time off before beginning to look for work again, to tie up client relationships, come to terms with what had happened and think about what his next move would be.

"It was a devastating series of events [for him]. He loved being an attorney but could no longer practice," Cohen says. "It took a while for him to wind down and let the dust settle. What he did actually was very smart because he was responsible in how he transitioned his client relationships, he was very strong and stoic, and he realized that he needed to take some time off because the situation was far too emotionally charged for him.

After a year, however, Cohen's client felt anxious to move on from the scandal and start a new career. "What we did first was address the story -- how to explain it in a way so that people would know he wasn't a participant in the criminal activities, but so that he also wouldn't sound bitter about everything that came down -- it was important to strike that balance." Once they got a story down, Cohen and his client focused on career moves.

The man had always been very active in his community -- he was involved with various organizations and sat on a number of boards. "We realized that he had these very sacred relationships that he could turn to because these were people who knew him on a very personal level and had worked with him through his volunteer commitments," Cohen says. "Many of these folks were active in financial services, and what he was able to do was join a small financial services organization in services in a regulatory role, so he's not a lawyer but he's at least using his legal knowledge. It was through his relationships that he was able to do this." Cohen's client is now very successful in his new role.

The insider trader

Another of Cohen's clients was accused of insider trading. Though the client felt that he wasn't guilty of the accusations against him, "rather than go to trial and face a possible prison sentence, he accepted the alternative: to be permanently barred from working in the securities industry," Cohen says.

The comeback

Unfortunately, about the same time the man's career fell apart, he also lost his son to a chronic illness. As tragic as his situation was, however, Cohen said it inspired the man to make a dramatic change in his life. "My client had been very much involved in the fundraising efforts for the organization that was tied to his son's disease. It was through his philanthropy and that activity that he decided that he was going to join the not-for-profit arena," Cohen says.

"He had been a manager in a financial institution, so we worked together to clearly define and articulate his management profile, and he eventually landed a role as the chief financial officer for a not-for-profit organization," he says. "In addition to his financial ability, [my client] also brought to the table a lot of potential to raise money because -- having worked on Wall Street -- he knew a lot of people in the financial industry. So he is also very valuable in terms of their development efforts, as well as his financial experience."

Career scandals can be devastating, but with humility and hard work, it is possible to get back on your feet. According to Cohen, the following are crucial to making a successful career comeback:

1. Digest what happened: "Allow the dust to settle so there's no emotional fallout surrounding whatever it is that you do next," he says. "This will also help you achieve some insight about where to take your career."

2. Develop a story and a game plan: "Ask yourself 'what would I like to do next given the various constraints,' and then establish a game plan," he says. "Part of that is developing the story that explains why you want to do what you want to do next, and you also need to be comfortable around the events and be able to talk about them honestly and openly, but to position them in a way that doesn't damage your credibility."

He doesn't suggest lying, but rather thinking like a publicist would -- framing the events so that you're honest, but so that you're not condemning yourself at the same time.

3. Use your network: The people whom you know or have worked with personally are the ones who are more likely to give you a job following a career mistake, since they will know "the whole story" or will be able to vouch for your work. "That's been the tool for both of my previous clients," Cohen says.

Kaitlin Madden is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.



Last Updated: 07/06/2011 - 11:08 AM


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