If you have a criminal record, how should you handle it when applying for a job?

The fact is, increasing numbers of employers are performing background checks on job applicants and setting policies regarding hiring candidates with criminal records. Federal and state laws bar certain employers from hiring people with felony convictions. Criminal records are readily available. Because of this, some people with criminal histories find it difficult to get jobs.

In spite of this, it is important to be truthful when asked about criminal history; if the potential employer performs a background check and finds you’ve lied, you can be fired on the spot. It’s better to discuss your record with the employer, explaining it in a positive way.


Know Your Rights

  • Limit your responses to employment inquiries to the scope of the inquiry. For instance, if an application asks you to list all convictions or all offenses, you should list both criminal (felony and misdemeanor) and non-criminal (violations) convictions, but should not list any arrest that is not followed by a conviction. If you are asked about crimes, convictions of crimes or criminal offenses, only misdemeanors and felonies need to be included. In response to questions about criminal background on a written job application, write "Will discuss at interview." Rehearse your explanation before the interview.
  • Employers cannot require disclosure or obtain information about your drug treatment or drug use history. However, when a criminal record is associated with drug use, it may be a good idea to explain to the potential employer that you have been in treatment to show that you have been rehabilitated and are in recovery. This way, you have the opportunity to describe your rehabilitation process at the same time that you must disclose information on your criminal history.
  • You may be able to clean up your rap sheet. All too often, arrests that should be sealed (arrests not leading to convictions, youthful offender adjudications or convictions for non-criminal offenses) remain open (unsealed) on your record, and are available for potential employers to see. In addition, errors, duplications, and unnecessary information in criminal records should be corrected before conducting a job search. Ex-offenders should contact the state criminal justice department’s record review unit for a copy of a state rap sheet and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a federal rap sheet.
  • As an ex-offender you can restore your rights to engage in certain types of employment by obtaining a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct. The Certificate of Relief from Disabilities is for people convicted of misdemeanors and/or for only one felony, while the Certificate of Good Conduct is for people convicted of more than one felony. Without these certificates, an ex-offender is not eligible for employment in a civil service job classified as a "public office" job, and may not be licensed as a real estate broker, pharmacist, or notary public. A Certificate of Relief from Disabilities can be applied for immediately after a conviction, while a Certificate of Good Conduct is granted after three to five years after completing a sentence.
  • The Work Opportunity Tax Credit, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and administered by state employment security agencies, encourages private employers to hire from seven targeted groups, including ex-felons.


Answering Questions

The Fortune Society is a New York City-based program that provides comprehensive services to ex-offenders, including counseling, education, employment, substance abuse treatment, and alternatives to incarceration. This Society recommends the following:

  • Start with the year of the conviction: It is important to show the employer you have nothing to hide. Although you may feel the need to soften the blow with words like "I made a little mistake," this only creates doubt in the employer’s mind and suggests that you’re trying to minimize the significance of being incarcerated.
  • Tell the employer what you were convicted of: Telling the employer your conviction in a matter-of-fact way will help the employer see that what you have done (or not done) has already been taken care of by a court of law. Do not use jargon; for example, if asked about the nature of the conviction, do not simply say, "sale." Say, "sale of a controlled substance." Otherwise, the employer will not necessarily know what this means and will likely begin asking unnecessary and uncomfortable questions. Remember: you have already been tried and convicted, and there is no reason to be on trial again.
  • Tell the employer how much time you did and what you did while you were in jail: This is your turn to re-educate the employer about incarceration. You can describe how you have changed and grown since your conviction. Emphasize your accomplishments and what you have learned.
  • Describe your current situation, your current goals and your reason for being at the interview: This may be done in a number of ways depending on what you are comfortable with. Some people can very easily say, "I am currently on parole and I can give you the number of my Parole Officer to verify what I have said." Others make a sales pitch and describe recent accomplishments. Whatever you decide, make sure you are comfortable with what you are going to say and have practiced in advance.
  • An example of what you might say: "In 1996 I was convicted of sale of a controlled substance. I was sentenced to five years, but got out in three on good behavior. I realized I had made a mistake right away, and took advantage of all the help and education I could get while I was incarcerated. I participated in a treatment program, and I’m proud to say I now have my GED and am working on an Associate’s Degree. I also learned how to work with people, even when the work is hard. I really want to work. I know I don’t need to do the things I used to do. I’m here interviewing with you because I have changed my life and because I really want to work here."