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People attend TechFair LA, a technology job fair, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RTSXKAI

Ask the Headhunter: Do I have to tell an employer that I was laid off?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I began interviewing with a company four months ago while I was still employed; then I lost my job in a downsizing. I didn’t see the need to disclose this to the company I was interviewing with as I thought it wasn’t relevant and would put me in a weaker negotiating position. Since then, I’ve had two interviews and was never asked, so I didn’t disclose that I’m unemployed. Now they have offered me a job, and they are doing a background check, which is fine. Should I disclose that I am not at the company I was at when they first interviewed me, or do I let them find out when they do the background check? I don’t want to be misleading and blow my chances to work with them. Thanks for your opinion.

Nick Corcodilos: Congratulations on getting an offer after four months. My guess is the offer is contingent on the background check if not on additional contingencies. Lately I hear too often about offers rescinded after they seemed real. So be careful — don’t make any assumptions or plans until you have a bona fide offer in writing. (Note to employed job seekers: Please see “Protect Your Job: Don’t give notice when accepting a new job.”)

I sense your nervousness about this, but please don’t tell yourself you’ve misled anyone. Things change in four months, and you’ve been patient.

Are you obligated to disclose?

Some might argue that you’re obligated to disclose your change in employment status even if it happened after the new employer started “processing” you. I don’t agree.

I believe certain information about a job applicant is none of an employer’s business. After all, what really matters is whether you can do the job you’re being considered for. It’ll sound extreme to some, but I don’t think your current status matters, and it should not affect whether you get hired.

READ MORE: Ask the Headhunter: Should I just quit, or find a new job first?

To gain some perspective, let’s put this shoe on the other foot. The employer’s business may have been going gangbusters four months ago when you applied. Suppose in that time its business tanked. Suppose its CEO got indicted. Suppose a class action was filed by its employees for illegal practices. Would the employer tell you, before you accepted the offer, in the interest of transparency? I doubt it.

Get my point? There’s usually a double standard. Employers have no qualms about withholding information, but expect total disclosure from job applicants. There’s something wrong with that.

But my observations won’t protect you. This employer may learn you’re unemployed and cancel the offer. I don’t think that’s right — and it may not be legal — but I don’t control the employer. (Some jurisdictions in the U.S. either ban discrimination against unemployed people or at least discourage it.)

So you must decide whether you’re justified in keeping your new status private and how important it is to you to do so.

The risks

I think you’re right about negotiating: If they find out you’re unemployed, they may lower their offer, and you’ll be at a disadvantage. That’s a risk of disclosing. The tips in this article may be helpful: “Negotiate a better job offer by saying YES.”

READ MORE: Ask the Headhunter: What’s the real reason I was rejected for this job?

As you’ve also suggested, the employer might find out you’re unemployed during the background check. If you don’t tell them, they might not care. Or, they may ask you to explain. Or, they may conclude you’ve been dishonest and just withdraw the offer without explaining why.

Make a choice 

What would I do? If you want this job, I’d disclose — but do it in a way that doesn’t compromise you, because I don’t think you actually owe them an update.

Because they may try to verify your employment and so many months have passed, I think I’d tell them in passing that you’re no longer at your old company. Don’t be defensive. You could contact the HR person who’s been working with you and say something like this:

By the way – months have passed since I filled out my application. At the time I was employed at X Corp. I’ve since left the company. I just wanted to inform you so there’s no confusion. I look forward to starting work with you!

The risk is that you’ll get a lower offer. Only you can make this choice. Use your judgment – do what you think is best. I’d love to know what you decide to do and how it turns out. I hope it works out to your satisfaction.

Dear Readers: Does an employer have a right to know whether you’re employed? Would you fess up that your employment status changed? How would you handle a situation like this?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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