Overcoming Obstacles to Employment: Help Job Seekers Surmount Past Mistakes

by Pattie Giordani 

Looking for and finding the right job can be difficult enough without being held back by a less-than-stellar background. But there are approaches job applicants can use to honestly handle such issues as a criminal record or substance abuse recovery, and still effectively emphasize their skills, qualifications, and current achievements.

“Regardless of background, there has to be a way that [such job seekers] can find employment,” says Sally Morrison, employment specialist for LDS Employment Resource Services in Naperville, Illinois. “We can’t change the circumstances, so we have to help them negotiate around the obstacles.”

For those who desire careers that require formal training, attending a two-year school may be required and could offer more employment opportunities. Since two-year schools often partner with local business and industry, many ex-offenders enroll hoping that jobs will be available upon completion of the degree, diploma, or certificate course of study.

Others may not be able to pursue the same jobs held prior to incarceration, e.g., a bank teller who stole money couldn’t work in a bank again, necessitating a career change. Because many community colleges offer counseling, education, and training for career changers, career services professionals at these schools are advising more of these types of students.

Special considerations

Students in this population come to the career center with different needs than traditional students. Again, a criminal record may limit the fields in which they may work. The National H.I.R.E. Network, an organization established by the Legal Action Center, provides a wealth of information regarding job opportunities available to people with criminal records. (For a list of federal occupational restrictions that affect ex-offenders, see http://hirenetwork.org/ fed_occ_restrictions.html.)

In addition, many states also prohibit ex-offenders from obtaining jobs in certain fields, such as education, healthcare (e.g., medicine, nursing, or physical therapy), law, and real estate, but you should be aware that these laws differ from state to state. Check your state’s employment laws to ensure that the student isn’t targeting a profession that a criminal background would exclude. Contact your state’s Attorney General for more information.

“To ensure ex-offenders have achievable goals, some of the [counseling] work is confirming that they would be considered by employers in certain industries,” says Diana M. Sanchez, career counselor in career and transfer student services at California State University in San Marcos, who has counseled two ex-offenders in their job searches.

These job seekers have to be reasonable in what they’re applying for, Morrison advises. “If the applicant has been convicted for stealing money, he or she is not going to be able to work at a job handling money.”

In addition to career counseling, some job seekers may need coaching in basic “going-to-work” skills, such as being on time, following instructions, working on a team, and dressing appropriately.

“We teach a 10-hour job-readiness class that uses a workbook from Correctional Counseling [an organization dedicated to the treatment of adult and juvenile offender populations through behavioral and cognitive restructuring skills],” says David Applin, corporate representative-job retention at Better People, a Portland, Oregon-based program that helps ex-offenders find and keep employment. The job-readiness class uses cognitive-behavioral exercises to teach reliability, teamwork, and other going-to-work skills.

“We also teach interview skills and how to complete resumes and applications,” Applin explains. “We teach clients how to tap the ‘hidden job market’ of unadvertised jobs, which can be important because people with criminal histories have a poor chance with the high level of competition found with advertised jobs.”

Patricia O’Connor, who is retired from the career center at Duke University, volunteered for four years at Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA), a nonprofit organization offering a two-year program that provides therapy, housing, food, and clothing to residents. In exchange, residents must stay off drugs and alcohol, and work in one of the businesses that TROSA runs.

During the time O’Connor volunteered at TROSA, she counseled residents looking for employment. “The people ranged from college graduates to the illiterate,” she says. “Each had special strengths, but it was hard to help them find and articulate what they could do, and what they liked to do.”

The program had a vocational component, O’Connor says, but some of the residents were professionals, and she found it challenging to assist them in the job search. “I searched for information that includes all education levels, but what I found assumes all job seekers with this background are good for only skilled or unskilled labor.”

Rap sheets/criminal records

An ex-offender should ensure that the information contained in his or her “rap sheet,” the criminal history record, is correct. A copy can be obtained by contacting the appropriate state agency. For example, in Pennsylvania these records are maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Records and Information. The National H.I.R.E. Network provides a list of state resources at http://www.hirenetwork.org/resource.html. A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) rap sheet can be obtained by contacting the FBI, Identification Division, 9th and Pennsylvania Avenues, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20537.

The ex-offender should examine these records carefully for incomplete or incorrect entries. If there is a reported arrest that does not show the outcome of the case, it implies that the case is still outstanding and unresolved, which could cause problems during the job search.

“Also, some convictions can be expunged from the criminal record,” Morrison says. Depending on the conviction, even someone over age 21 can have certain records expunged. It is advised that the ex-offender seek assistance from a counselor well versed in these procedures.

Honesty is always the best policy when filling out applications, experts agree. Answer truthfully such questions as “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Offering extensive details is not necessary, but the applicant should include “will discuss further in a personal interview” in the space.

In stressing the need for honesty, one career services professional said, “I actually worked with a young woman who left the [criminal record] information off the application and was terminated when the background check showed she had a conviction.”

“They [ex-offenders] need to deal with the situation up front,” says Morrison. “On the application, where it asks ‘Do you have a felony conviction?,’ write ‘yes’ if there is one,” she advises. “[They should] also say how long it has been since the conviction occurred. The further in the past it [the conviction] is, the easier it is to deal with.” And, if the company has a policy that prevents it from hiring ex-offenders, being truthful will not waste the employer’s or the applicant’s time, she adds.

There may be gaps in employment due to time spent in prison or rehab but there are ways to handle these on the resume, advisers say. “Never mention jail, prison, or rehab as a reason for leaving a job or to fill gaps,” Applin says.

“The employment history was a particularly unique challenge,” O’Connor says. “One of my favorite stories is when one resident said, ‘I can’t write a resume because I have spent most of my life in prison.’

“I said, ‘Tell me about any jobs you had while in prison.’ Seems he had some responsible assignments, including managing other inmates, but he couldn’t see that [the job] was the key, not the where [in prison].”

Listing jobs held in prison can show that the ex-offender used the time constructively and that he or she will know basic going-to-work skills. Also, Morrison suggests that ex-offenders obtain a job, any job, while searching for more meaningful work or while attending school or other training.

“You can work at a pet store,” she explains, “they’ll train you to be a dog groomer and while you’re working there you can prepare to do something else. Be very open to other vocations that will give you a stepping stone.

“[For example], in Chicago, you can make $11 or $12 an hour walking dogs,” she adds. “That gives you an opportunity to put together a new work history, and when you’re not walking the dogs, you can be studying to do something else.”

Sanchez says that when she counseled ex-offenders, much of the focus was on helping them develop self-esteem and confidence in their skills.

“The best tool seemed to be the mock interview,” Sanchez says. “I asked the tough questions and coached them through their responses. They were encouraged to accept responsibility, express remorse, and articulate how they’ve changed.”

For the interview, Morrison suggests preparing specific achievement statements. That way, when the interviewer asks about the applicant’s background, he or she can give a brief answer.

Applin suggests saying something such as, “Yes, some time ago I made a mistake that I regret. I’m working hard today to make a positive contribution to my community.” The job seeker should also stress his or her current accomplishments, such as obtaining a degree or certificate, and any relevant work experience.

Practicing answers to these questions will help the applicant increase confidence and decrease anxiety. Preparing to interview can be stressful enough without having to address past behavior that the job seeker is trying to overcome. But it is essential to sincerely convey remorse, politely point out that those actions are in the past, and stress recent achievements.

Finding employers willing to hire

Some programs that assist ex-offenders will refer those who meet screening criteria to employers. The Northern California Service League (NCSL), a nonprofit organization that helps this population become responsible and productive citizens, says that it screens applicants before referring them to employers and attempts to match job seekers to appropriate employers. (For example, they would not try to place an applicant with a record of check forging in a bank.)

Again, check your state’s laws for industries that are off-limits. “Call [local employers] and ask,” Applin says. “If [you have] helped the client to change his or her previous behavior, explain this to the employer. [The employer] may be willing to give the client a break.”

However, be aware that in these uncertain times it may be even more difficult for ex-offenders to find employment in their chosen field. Since September 11, more and more companies and organizations are conducting background checks on job applicants. Previously, the 2000 Workplace Privacy Survey, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), found that “safety, legal compliance, and performance monitoring” are some of the reasons for these checks, which include checking references, backgrounds, criminal records, driving records, and credit histories. Of the 722 SHRM professionals who responded to the survey, 61 percent checked criminal records.

On the other hand, even if the employer performs a background check, many organizations take it on a case-by-case basis. Such is the case at Consolidated Graphics, Inc., a commercial printing company with headquarters in Houston, Texas, says Rachel Koenig, national manager of recruiting and development.

“We come right out and ask, ‘Is there any reason you will not pass our background check?,’ ” she says.

Koenig says she believes many HR people are open to someone who has had a problem with alcohol or drugs but overcame it and is trying to get his or her life back on track. “We have hired people with misdemeanors and with past alcohol issues,” she says.

Again, honesty is the best—and only—policy. “The worst-case scenario is to hide [a problem] and then have it show up. If [the applicant] gives full disclosure in an application, then when the background check finds it, it’s not a big deal,” Koenig explains. “But if the applicant doesn’t tell us, or tries to hide it, especially if it’s a felony conviction, that’s an automatic disqualifier.”

Companies and organizations hire ex-offenders to create goodwill, to help people who want to turn their lives around and help themselves, and also to tap into this largely neglected part of the work force. There are also government incentives for those companies that hire ex-offenders, such as:

• The Federal Bonding Program offers individual bonds to employers free of charge for job applicants who are denied coverage by commercial insurance carriers. The bond is an insurance policy that protects the employer in case of any loss of money or property because of employee theft or dishonesty. The job applicant or the employer can request the bond. For more information, visit www.bonds4jobs.com.

• Employers can apply for a Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and receive a federal tax credit up to $2,400 for each qualified new employee. The WOTC is authorized by the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 and encourages employers to hire job seekers in eight targeted groups—including ex-offenders —by reducing the hiring organization’s federal income tax liability. For more information, visit http://www.doleta.gov/business/incentives/opptax/.


Finally, network in your field—other career services professionals who already counsel this population can be helpful when you’re developing methods to use at your school. Terri Berryman, director of career and placement services at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, says that her school has been offering a career success workshop for ex-offenders for five years.

“We have used a variety of resources,” Berryman says, “but the most effective resource we have found has been ex-offenders sharing their stories of success. When possible we invite someone with a conviction to provide real-life stories regarding overcoming challenges.”

Don’t let your past bring down your future: Make sure your criminal record or substance abuse history does not prevent employment in your chosen field. For a list of federal occupational restrictions that affect ex-offenders, see http://hirenetwork.org/fed_occ_restrictions.html. State laws may differ, be sure to check your state’s employment laws as well.

Never lie—ever: Do not lie on an application, a resume, or in an interview. Most employers do background checks and they will find out if you have a record. Lying will disqualify you from consideration for a job, or if you have been hired, it will be grounds for immediate termination.

Handle employment gaps effectively: Do not use resume templates. Consider using a functional instead of a chronological format. Check with your career center for examples of functional resumes. Do include jobs you held while in prison or rehab; it shows you used the time constructively and that you know going-to-work skills.

Practice interviewing: Mock interviews and lots of practice are key to answering the difficult questions with confidence. You should convey that you accept responsibility for your past, express remorse, and show how you have changed. Stress your current accomplishments, such as obtaining formal training and relevant work experience.



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