We've had a few job seekers write in, asking how to deal with questions about having a criminal background. It's a question that comes up for nearly every job search, and it's usually not an easy subject to discuss. Employers have an obligation to do due diligence in the hiring process, so that they don’t hire an employee that will harm others or the business. On the other hand, if an ex-offender answers truthfully, they risk not getting the job. If they lie, they risk being terminated once their record is discovered.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind when answering questions about your criminal background:
Answer the Question Asked
Pay attention to what the application or interviewer asked, because arrests and convictions are not the same thing. An arrest means you have been taken into police custody, but not found guilty (you were never charged, or the charges were dropped or dismissed). A conviction means you have been tried in court and found guilty for a crime, or that you pleaded guilty for a crime. If the application asks for past convictions, you do not need to mention any arrests. And if the question asks if you've been convicted of a crime in the last 10 years, you're only required to mention any convictions during that timeframe –older convictions can be left out.
Know Your Rights
When answering questions about your criminal background, it's important to know your rights. Laws vary by state about what questions about a criminal background are legal and illegal. In some states, it's legally acceptable to respond "no" to past offenses for arrests that did not become convictions, minor offenses, convictions that have been "erased" and convictions outside of a certain time period. To find out the laws in your state, ask your State Department of Labor.
Be Honest and Take Responsibility
However you respond to questions about your criminal background, answer honestly and truthfully. Your best chance of impressing the employer is by taking responsibility for your actions. Be brief and to the point, admitting what you did and expressing regret, but explaining what you learned, what steps you've taken to try to change, and your new life goals since the incident.
Choose Potential Jobs Wisely
Some jobs and industries are already difficult to get into and if you've spent an extended time out of the workforce, those jobs will be even tougher to get. Sometimes, it may be the best move to apply to jobs you may not have considered before, such as entry-level jobs. You might not have the perfect job at first, but it can be a stepping-stone to better jobs later on if you perform well and earn a great reference.
Remember, the goal of the application is to prove that you're a hardworking person that the company can count on. With a criminal record, you may need to go above and beyond in order to prove that you’ve changed your life and are capable of doing the job—and doing it well. Be honest when you answer questions about your criminal background because trying to cover it up can harm you more than telling the truth. Focus on the present and future, rather than the past for your best chance of landing a job.
Have you landed a job despite having a criminal background or know someone who has? How did you answer questions about your history? Share your story below in the comments.