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There are several types of projects you could work on that could be sensitive for various reasons (involvment might disclose your personal political affiliations, the legality might be questionable, etc). However, projects such as this can still be valuable experiences where you develop or exercise very strong skills, resulting in such a project making you more attractive to hire.

How can you list experience on a sensitive project like this on your CV without disclosing too much information about the project itself? Would it be okay to list it as a "personal project"?

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    If it was borderline to illegal, please put it on your resume, so I will make sure not to hire you. Why on earth would you do something that is borderline to illegal? Really that shows a lack of judgement. – HLGEM Sep 11 '12 at 20:39
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    @HLGEM Please, it was just an example for the reader of the question to get my point. I bet you've never done anything illegal either, by the way. – Zar Sep 11 '12 at 20:41
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    @Zar the difference is that while i'm sure HLGEM has done some grey-area things before, he would never be foolish enough to admit to them/put them on his resume. – acolyte Sep 11 '12 at 20:58
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    @acolyte, actually I've quit a job that asked me to do things in grey areas (when the VP insists you do a task so that you will get in trouble if it comes to a court case instead of her, then it is time to leave). And I'm a she not a he. – HLGEM Sep 11 '12 at 21:29
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    @HLGEM: note that if it was "borderline to illegal" but on the right side of the border, it's still legal, so you would have no ground not to hire this person. :) – haylem Sep 16 '12 at 8:00
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You can always list the project as confidential but list the technologies and experience.

Don't lie, but certainly you can spin the actual project goals and details - these shouldn't be as relevant as the experience.

If you have a codename for the project, you can simply use the codename and list the achievements without going into the sensitive part.

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    Agreed. You can talk about your web app that optimizes the content it presents to the user based on past viewing habits, items he's marked as interesting, and the secret eyeball tracking through his webcam without saying it's a porn site. – Monica Cellio Sep 11 '12 at 20:34
  • @MonicaCellio that sounds like personal experience. And Oded brings up a good point. Technically, what the company might not know won't hurt them. Just make sure it's not incredibly easy for them to catch you and call you out on your omission(s) – acolyte Sep 11 '12 at 21:00
  • Just remember you may be asked to show them your personal projects if you claim to have them. – HLGEM Sep 11 '12 at 21:27
9

The golden rule is that you should not advertise something you can't fully back up or stand behind. That being said, I recognize that some people will not have that option. Perhaps you made poor choices early in life and a lot or most of what you've done up to this point is questionable. I don't know what your particular story is (and I don't want to know either). And leaving large gaps on your resumé is equally suspect.

If you put something like that on your resumé, be prepared to be asked about it. Especially if you write stuff like "Project name: Withheld" or "Confidential" or "Client: N/A" - that only piques the interest further as it makes those things stand out.

So, if you need to put "questionable" things on your resumé, be brief. Don't describe details, limit to technology and area, like "Built data-mining tool using technologies X, Y and Z". If and when an interviewer asks about this, you have the option of elaborating and, possibly, turning it to your advantage. If what you did was ethically or morally questionable, you can give context and describe it as a learning experience. Describe why you did what you did, what you learned and why you would not do it again.

If what you did was illegal, don't mention it. Ever.

3

Ignoring the fact that you should avoid illegal work....

List this the same way you would list any confidential project (such as an upcoming, unreleased product that your current/former employer is keeping quiet). If there is some codename available for the project, use that. If not, simply list it as a "Confidential project". That's it as far as identifying the project.

Then provide some explanation of what you did, in terms specific enough to describe your responsibilities and accomplishments, but vague enough that you don't give away anything you shouldn't.

Let's say, for example, you ran a local office for an unpopular politcal group. I'd suggest something like the following:

  • GENERAL TITLE OR PROJECT CODENAME
    • Supervised 20 staff members and numerous volunteers
    • Increased volunteer numbers from 10 to 50
    • Oversaw fundraising campaign that raised $4M over 8 months
    • Organized a local conference on Topic X with Y speakers and Z attendees

It's really not too different from a regular project, you just need to be more careful about what you disclose (and make sure it's legal so that your employer can act as a reference and back up your claims).

1

This particular scenario comes up often when dealing with software engineers that are working on government projects that require a Top Secret clearance. Of course, it is easy to tell people that a project is secret based on government clearance, and you won't hear follow-up questions about what the project was. Generally, you would be able to detail the technologies that you used.

There are also scenarios where you could have been working for an illegal business without even knowing it. For example, if you were building technologies that individually were seemingly harmless and used by what appeared to be a legitimate business, but you later found out they were used to power a gambling website, the portion of the work that you did was not illegal or even unethical. I would, in this case, list the experience completely and not the company name or details about the business (if asked, you should reveal the full truth).

Unless you need to list this on the resume (for reasons of needing to show how you developed a skill or to fill a gap on the resume), it is probably best to leave it off. If you do include it, give the relevant details only.

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