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Trying to hide your scandalous past

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

A couple of years ago I was falsely accused of something that erupted into a huge scandal. (Well, huge in our area.) My name was in all the papers and if you search on my name lots of bad things pop up. I didn't actually commit the crime of which I was accused and the prosecutor ended up dropping charges, but nevertheless, my reputation was destroyed.

I was fired from my job as part of this mess and I've been at home with the kids ever since. I want to go back to the workforce, but honestly I'm scared to death to apply under my legal name. Can I apply under my maiden name instead? What will happen if I get hired and then say, "Oh by the way, I'm not Jane Doe, I'm Jane Jones?"

First of all there's applying for a job, and then there's filling out an application for a job. But let's talk about fear.

You're afraid people will find out about your past, and that your secret will destroy you professionally? Perhaps a better option to cowering in fear, hoping no one finds out, is to be the bearer of bad news yourself. I actually recommend this because people are much more inclined to believe information that is hidden than information that is in the open. So, you say, "When you run the background check on me, you may find information related to [scandal]. As you'll find out, there was no evidence of my involvement, and all charges were eventually dropped, but somehow that never makes the front pages. If you have any questions or concerns regarding that I'll be happy to answer them."

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If you want to go the hiding route, there are some pitfalls there. You are fortunate to be a married woman (or divorced but kept your married name) with a whole unused maiden name just sitting out there. There are plenty of women who change their name legally when they marry, but are known professionally by their maiden name. This is especially popular for women who had already established themselves professionally prior to marriage, but still wanted to change their name.

I've worked with many a female who has done just that. Their names on their business card read one last name but their paychecks were made out to a different last name.

So, writing your name as Jane Doe on your resume shouldn't be a problem and it's not even something I'd blink at if, when you were hired, you said, "My legal last name is Jones, but professionally I'm known as Doe."

However, if you said, "I told you my name was Jane Doe, but it's actually Jane Jones," I'd find that weird and would wonder what in the heck you were hiding.

But, it's not just as simple as going by another name. Most applications will ask if you are known by any other names and you would have to list your legal last name (and, in fact, any names you've been known by, in case you've been married four times and changed your name each time). This is for the background check and is necessary to track down transcripts and the like.

Additionally, your Social Security number will be run through a check to make sure you haven't stolen the card. The number will need to match your legal name.

And, out of curiosity I wondered what would happen if someone ran a Google search on my maiden name. It's a fairly unique name and I've never met anyone with that last name that didn't turn out to be at least a second cousin or closer. First thing that popped up? My Facebook page. The second and third were public records sites which were definitely pointing to me. One even listed me under the address I lived at for 4 months while in graduate school in 1998. Oy. The internet is forever.

My point is, hiding behind your maiden name may or may not hide results about your scandal. (My maiden name is unique and yours may well not be.) And any company that asks you for information for a background check will find out anyway. So it may well not be worth your time.

But, if you'd like to be known professionally by your maiden name, that's fine. But make sure you tell your for references so they don't act confused when someone calls about you. And, you'll have to tell the recruiter about your married name even if they don't run a formal background check anyway.

But I strongly recommend being upfront and honest about the whole mess. It may make it more difficult in the beginning, but you won't spend your life afraid that someone will find out.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

Photo of person hiding courtesy Flickr user Lili Vieira de Carvalho

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