Most of us make mistakes and quickly try to put them behind us. Except for those who use social media to memorialize failures in judgement, personal pitfalls rarely come up as part of the interview process. However, if the errors resulted in a conviction, prospective employers will respond differently during the interview.
Here are some recommendations to improve your employability if you have a record.
When asked how they handle an applicant with a record, most hiring managers, business owners and human resources professionals typically respond with, "It depends." There are many different types of violations. Some things are immediate deal breakers for most professional environments, such as embezzlement, physical or sexual acts of violence, theft and fraud. Others are not perceived to be as "risky," such as possession of marijuana or public intoxication. Business leaders must protect the interests of the firm, their clients and employees. And they'll avoid applicants with criminal offenses that expose a business, its clients or employees to additional risk or an unsafe environment.
The other key question posed by hiring authorities is, "How long ago did the violation occur and how old was the person when the crime was committed?" It stands to reason that there is more leniency if the crime happened a long time ago, and the applicant can show evidence of how he changed his ways or learned from past mistakes. There is also a greater level of acceptance for choices made when the applicant was a teenager or in college. Most people can remember the questionable decisions they made in their youth and are more likely to look past something that can be chalked up to a dumb decision, like public indecency at a concert in college, versus a calculated offense, like stealing the neighbor's Social Security check or running a dog-fighting ring.
The bad thing about the past (especially a criminal one) is that you cannot change it. So, how do you deal with a conviction while looking for a job? First, find the most succinct and professional way to describe what happened. Stumbling over your explanation or droning on about all the things you did leading up to an arrest will be problematic. You need to know what your record will show, take ownership of your past and have a transition statement (or two) about what that experience taught you, how it strengthened you or how you have changed. I'm not advocating sugarcoating your offense, but conveying sincerity and evidence of change will go further than avoidance or rambling.
Next, timing is everything. Don't walk into an interview and immediately announce your record, but don't get to the offer stage without addressing it either. In general, give the interviewer an opportunity to like you and be impressed with your professional qualifications. If you aren't a match for the role, criminal record or not, you aren't getting hired.
There is no need to share information too early if the interview isn't going well. Once you see signs that you are a good match for the role and will be asked for a second interview, it might be time to speak up. If you have a felony or a more serious misdemeanor, you should bring it up before accepting a second meeting.
Saying, "Thank you for your time. I would really like to accept your invitation to move forward in the hiring process. I wish I did not need to say this, but I want to be upfront with you from the start. I have a criminal background due to X offense. It happened Y years ago and here are the steps I have taken -- or amends I have made -- to make sure I am never in that place again. I would like the opportunity to explain further how I have grown, change or learned from my bad decision and I am happy to answer any questions you may have." Then, do your best to stop talking and wait for a response. Some managers may end the discussion and wish you luck, but you may find that other managers will appreciate your honesty and want to move forward.
If you have a less serious offense, typically a misdemeanor not involving violence, aggression, fraud or theft (in other words, nothing that would pose a risk or threat to your employer), you can proceed more slowly. Of course, when asked directly if you have a conviction, in person or on an application, honesty is the best policy. Also, you should always alert your future employer to any past convictions on your record before they proceed with a background check. It is expected that you are aware of what is on your record and know what will come up on various background checks. Candidates that either don't know (or try to pretend that they don't know) are usually dismissed as dishonest.
Making mistakes is part of life. However, mistakes (and other more deliberate actions) that result in a criminal record pose some serious hurdles when searching for work in the business world. While honesty won't solve everything, the best employment relationships are built on trust. Think carefully about how and when to explain your past. Look for opportunities to develop the best professional skills possible. A qualified, driven and honest job seeker will always fare better in the employment market.
Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.
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