In today’s economic climate, and with social distancing and masking mandated by the pandemic, searching for a job is stressful enough without having a criminal record. Whether you have served time in prison or have been arrested but not charged, you may have encountered employers who have been reluctant to hire you on that basis.
You are not alone. According to the National Employment Law Project, as many as 65 million Americans have a criminal record that continues to haunt them in their job search.
You have no control over a prospective employer’s decision. However, you can educate yourself on what an employer can and cannot do, your rights as a job applicant, how you might conduct yourself after the arrest or conviction, and how you might strategically perform your job search. Preparing yourself will give you the best chance of landing a job.
Employers’ Rights Regarding Job Applicants with a Criminal Record
Employers have the right to conduct a background check, which will uncover adult convictions and arrests within the last seven years. Most employers cannot simply disqualify an applicant with a previous conviction or arrest. They must demonstrate that the applicant’s conviction is job-related and would impair their ability to do the job or their trustworthiness in the job.
For example, if you sought employment as a public school teacher and were convicted of distributing child pornography, that easily disqualifies you for that particular job. However, if you had that same conviction and applied for a job cleaning office buildings at night, the conviction would have no bearing on your ability to do that job. If you had a conviction for theft, perhaps that might disqualify you from the job cleaning offices.
1. Be Honest About Your History
You may be tempted to lie when an application asks if you have a criminal record, but don’t. Many employers conduct a background check, and if they find that you have been dishonest on the application, they will not hire you. Even worse, if you’ve already been hired and your lie is discovered later, you can be fired for it, and you will be ineligible for unemployment benefits.
2. Explain Your History and How You Have Rehabilitated Yourself
If you are asked about convictions or arrests during an interview, be upfront about it and take the opportunity to explain the circumstances of the offense or alleged offense. You may find that an employer is interested in you because you made a mistake but are now rehabilitated and motivated to get a job. Discuss with a potential employer how your core values have changed since the offense.
Some states forbid application questions about criminal records until the hiring process has begun so that an employer can run a background check. Find out whether this is the case in your state by visiting www.nelp.org/banthebox.
3. You Have Rights Regarding Background Checks
Know that you have certain rights regarding background checks. A potential employer must get your permission to run a background check on you, and if you are not hired after the results of the background check come in, that employer must give you a copy of the background report. Not only that, but they must provide you with the report before they make the final hiring decision so that you have an opportunity to explain, correct inaccurate information, and advocate for yourself.
If you have a criminal record, don’t lie about it; if they find out about your record, you could be fired and will be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Also, lying about your record on some types of applications (for military service, for example) is a crime in and of itself. Be honest.
The Rights of Job Applicants with a Criminal Record
1. Offenses that You Might Not Have to Disclose
In some cases, you don’t have to tell a potential employer about your history, such as when:
- An arrest does not result in a conviction;
- You are in pre-trial adjudication for an offense that is not a criminal offense by statute;
- You committed a minor drug offense, and a certain number of years have passed since that conviction with no further criminal record;
- You have obtained a certificate of rehabilitation or a similar document;
- A juvenile court convicted you, and you are now an adult. In some states, you will have to have your juvenile records sealed or expunged;
- You have had your criminal record expunged.
2. You Do Not Have to Disclose More than is Asked For
While you must be honest about your background when filling out a job application, you do not need to offer more information than is requested.
- If the application asks whether you have ever been convicted of a felony offense, you do not need to disclose misdemeanor convictions or non-criminal offenses such as traffic violations, and in some states, DUIs;
- Some applications ask specifically about convictions related to particular types of offenses, which may bear on an applicant’s ability to do the job or to be trusted in that position. Typically, disqualifying offenses are related to theft, fraud, drugs, alcohol misuse, or sexual misconduct. If a question is about a specific offense or offenses, you do not need to disclose unrelated convictions or arrests.
- If your conviction was overturned or you were found not guilty in a new trial after conviction and appeal, you might not have to disclose that conviction.
3. Know What Offenses are on Your Record and Apply for Jobs You Can Get
The nature of your convictions or arrests matters. Some types of convictions will disqualify you for some positions. For example, financial convictions such as embezzlement, fraud, or theft will disqualify you from work in insurance or banking.
Of course, you should make a list of dream jobs based on your interests and skills. But at this stage, it is essential to amend that list according to what sort of jobs will not be impacted by your convictions or arrests.
- List jobs you are interested in, and then list related positions that might lead to such jobs;
- Research the requirements of a job you are interested in rather than assume that your record will or will not disqualify you;
- Eliminate the jobs for which your record will automatically disqualify you. Know that any criminal record at all may disqualify you for some sensitive positions such as government or civilian contractor jobs with the military that require security clearances, positions with financial responsibility, or positions working with or around children.
Contact your state’s Department of Justice for a copy of your record so that you can assess the potential of being hired for positions you are interested in.
How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Hired with a Criminal Record
1. Accept that You Need to Start Somewhere
Someone with a criminal conviction may have trouble landing their dream job, or even a job that makes use of their skill set. You might have a better chance of getting the sort of job that is ‘behind the scenes,” such as maintenance, night cleaning or shelf stocking, working in a restaurant kitchen, working in construction, or warehouse work.
2. An Entry-Level Job May Lead to More Meaningful Employment
If you can land an entry-level job, you can work your way up.
You must understand that when an employer sees your record, he or she may be reluctant to hire you for a position with a lot of responsibility but maybe more than willing to give you a chance in another, usually lower-paid position. Rather than turn down a job that is beneath your skills or pays less than you think you are worth, use this opportunity to demonstrate that you are a trustworthy employee and that you can be relied upon to get the job done. Once your employer realizes your worth, you may be promoted!
Put your ego aside and do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door, including accepting a lower-paying job for which you are overqualified. Use this time to rebuild your resume and your reputation with your current employer, which could result in a promotion or an excellent reference should you move on from that company.
3. A Temp Job May also Lead to a Better Job
If you apply with a temp agency, you must disclose your criminal record if asked. However, these agencies can place employees at companies without running additional background checks, which is a “backdoor” to get in. This allows you to prove yourself and get similar temporary assignments, or be hired somewhere permanently based on your performance.
4. Take a Job that will Build Up Your Resume, Job History, and Reputation
If you spend time in prison, there will necessarily be a gap in your employment history. Working entry-level jobs or jobs unrelated to your professional skillset is a way to repair your job history and show potential employers that you are willing to do what it takes to work.
5. Ask Personal Connections if They Know of Any Job Openings
If a friend or family member is hiring or knows someone who’s hiring, ask them to hire you or advocate for you. If you ask someone who knows you or your family and is interested in your success, you will have a much better chance of finding work.
6. Collect Letters of Recommendation from Your Advocates
Ask your friends and family members to write character references or letters of recommendation for you.
What’s the difference? A character reference can come from anyone who knows you well personally. If someone can attest to your good character, or your reformed character since the arrest or conviction, that is valuable information for a potential employer.
A letter of recommendation is from someone who knows your skillset and can predict how you would perform in a particular job type. This may come from a former employer, a coach or trainer, or a former or current professor.
If an advocate of yours knows the potential employer, it is entirely appropriate for your advocate to call the employer and talk about your skills, good character, and how you have changed since you made a mistake resulting in your arrest or conviction.
7. Contact One of the Many Nonprofits that Help Individuals with Convictions Find Jobs
There are national, state, and local organizations and government agencies that help those with criminal convictions find employment.
These include, among others:
- The National Transitional Jobs Network.
- America Works.
- The New Jersey Reentry Corporation.
Google “job resources criminal convictions” and variants to find local and state organizations that can help you.
8. If Enough Time Has Passed, You May Be Able to Get an Offense Expunged or Your Juvenile Record Sealed
Ask your attorney, public defender, or parole or probation officer whether you can have the offense expunged (removed) from your criminal record. Whether expungement is available to you depends upon the type of offense and how much time has passed, and the expungement laws vary by state.
If you are successful in expunging the offense, you can legally answer “no” to any questions on job applications regarding past criminal convictions.
In some states, “sealing” a criminal record and “expunging” an offense means the same thing. Other states make a distinction. In those states that do, sealing a juvenile criminal record means that that record is not available to the public. A person seeking to seal their juvenile record must be at least 18, and a certain amount of time must have passed since the conviction or arrest, which varies by state. That person files a petition pays a fee, and if the petition is approved, the record is sealed.
In most cases, that seal is absolute – meaning, if you are asked on a job application whether you have convictions or arrests, and those were sealed as part of your juvenile record, you can answer “no.” However, under certain circumstances, your juvenile record will be available for inspection, such as if you apply for a job with law enforcement. Again, the availability of a sealed juvenile criminal record varies by state.
Honesty and Willingness to Improve Will Set You On the Path to Success
These tips will help you in your job search, but ultimately, it is up to a potential employer to decide to take the risk of hiring you. You will receive many rejections before you succeed, so when you succeed in landing a job, the value that job for the moment and work as hard as you can to perform well to use that first job as a stepping stone to better jobs in the future. Good luck!