You've done the crime and served your time. Or, maybe you just did something stupid or reckless as a teenager that has left a blemish on your record.
Now, you are looking for a new job and are worried: how will you explain your criminal history during your job search. While this discussion can be very stressful, it might help to know that you aren't alone. An estimated 70 million Americans have criminal records that might turn up in a background check, and advocates have been working for years to level the playing field in the job market for these jobseekers.
The FBI defines "criminal history" as anyone who has been arrested on a felony charge, whether or not a conviction was the end result. Roughly 73 million Americans have been arrested on a felony charge, but the FBI does not keep records on how many of those arrested resulted in a conviction. Still, according to the National Law Employment Project, there is plenty of confusion around the term "criminal history," and prospective employers might get worried if it turns up on a background check.
The stigma surrounding criminal records has been challenged over the last decade thanks to an international campaign call Ban the Box, which has worked to make it illegal for potential employers to ask about an applicant's criminal history until later in the hiring process. ("The box" referred to in the campaign's title represents the box on job applications that applicants must check if they have a criminal record.)
How Ban the Box is Helping Job Seekers with Criminal Records
The campaign's goal is to make hiring practices fair for those with criminal records by delaying when in the hiring process an applicant is asked to share this information. Advocates believe that postponing the sharing of background information until after an applicant has had time to prove themselves will help ex-convicts get jobs.
By making it easier for ex-offenders to obtain employment and earn an honest living, proponents of Ban the Box insist, people with criminal records will be given a fair shot at securing employment which can help keep them on the straight-and-narrow. Several studies show that offering jobs to ex-offenders reduces recidivism rates.
As of 2018, 32 states in the U.S. have mandated the removal of conviction history questions from job applications for private employers. More than 150 other cities, including New York and San Francisco, have taken similar measures.
Today, according to the National Employment Law Project, nearly three-fourths of the American population lives in a jurisdiction that has banned the box. But regardless of where you live, ultimately you will have to have a conversation about your past indiscretions.
But when do you mention it? And how?
5 Tips for Discussing Your Criminal History in a Job Search
1. Do it face-to-face.
The phone works, too. Never mention your criminal history in a resume or cover letter, even in states with protections for people with past convictions, as this can introduce unconscious bias into the hiring process. By the time you've been invited for a telephone or face-to-face interview, the employer is already intrigued by your qualifications, which will work to your benefit.
Having a criminal record may feel like an albatross around your neck but it shouldn't. Everyone deserves a second chance.
2. Always be honest.
While a criminal record can be a tricky topic to navigate, in this instance, honesty indeed is the best policy. Here's why:
- They will find out anyway. While Ban the Box policies delay the conversation, the legislation does not prevent employers in any state from conducting background checks after a conditional offer has been made, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. And, according to a study by HR.com, nearly all employers use some sort of background check to screen new hires. Even if they don't, a Google search of your name is just a few keystrokes away.
- Being honest builds trust. Candidates who try to hide their criminal histories are often eliminated for being dishonest.
- You can add context. If your offense occurred a long time ago, it behooves you to explain that and allow the recruiter to ask questions. People are people, and we all make mistakes. If you've managed to keep your nose clean since your conviction, you could be held up as a success story.
- You can control the narrative. Initiating the conversation is also beneficial for those who have faced serious charges because it provides the opportunity to explain. A bar fight that ended in assault charges may be perceived differently than, say, assaulting an elderly woman on the street. Having the opportunity to explain the circumstances can help the perception of your crimes.
3. Address it early in the process.
You want to build trust in the interview process but not shoot yourself in the foot. To accomplish this, be up front about your past once you get into the interview chair but don't mention your criminal past on your resume or in your cover letter.
Again, mentioning a conviction early in the process allows you to take the reins and explain your past on your terms. And since "Tell me something about yourself," is one of the most common interview questions, you'll have a natural opening.
However, never lead with your record. Instead, walk the interviewer through your skills and experience. Always begin on a positive before segueing into your criminal history. If possible, move on quickly and explain how your skills and experiences will benefit the company.
4. Rehearse what you'll say.
Like an elevator pitch, your explanation of your criminal record should be brief, to the point, and natural. While you don't want it to sound stiff or overly-rehearsed, you don't want to explain on the fly.
So how to you craft and criminal record elevator pitch? Here are some things to consider as you draft your explanation of your criminal history:
- Keep it short. Be direct and give the bare minimum details. Never make excuses for your behavior or blame others. Taking responsibility for your actions and expressing a wish to move in a more positive direction is critical.
- Combine your sentences. If you have a long criminal history, were convicted and have served time in prison more than once, add them together. So, for example, if you served one year on a forgery charge and two years on an assault charge, say that you've served three years in prison. Again, it's critical never to lie, but you aren't required to provide all of the dirty details either.
- Find the lesson. Many people walk away from a criminal conviction with a newfound resolve to make changes in their lives. What are the lessons you've learned from the experience? What steps have you taken since your conviction to become a responsible member of society? Think about the positives that have come to the experience and include this in your response.
5. Create a new resume.
Whether or not you have a record, the first step in any job search is to learn how to write a resume that will get you in the interview chair. There are lots of free resources online that will help you learn how to write a resume. Or, if you feel that you need more assistance, a professional resume builder can help. Resume and cover letter builders will guide you step-by-step through the process of creating new application materials that will help carry you into a new job and a new life.
Having a criminal record may feel like an albatross around your neck but it shouldn't. Everyone deserves a second chance. If you are having trouble finding employment because of your criminal record, there are organizations and employment websites dedicated to helping ex-convicts find work. Utilize all of the resources available to you and you will find a job.