How to address your criminal history in a job interview

You can still get a job even with a criminal record. Use these tips to steer the conversation toward your strengths.

How to address your criminal history in a job interview

Prevent a criminal record from hurting your job candidacy.

For many job seekers with a criminal background, getting asked by a prospective employer to describe their record is their worst nightmare. But having a criminal past isn’t a deal-breaker for most employers, a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) found. That’s great news for the one-third of the adult working-age U.S. population that has a record.

Nearly half of HR professionals do not feel strongly that criminal history is a deciding factor in hiring, and about two-thirds said their company has experience hiring individuals with criminal records, according to the poll.

Nonetheless, 73% of the HR professionals surveyed said their company conducts criminal background checks on job applicants—and 46% reported their company’s initial employment application includes an item about criminal history. Translation: If you have a criminal history, you may have to explain your past convictions during job interviews.

While questions about your legal issues may be uncomfortable to answer, you can use them to show how you’ve made changes, discuss your talents, and turn a perceived negative into a positive. Here’s what you need to know to prevent a criminal record from hurting your job candidacy.

Assess your rap sheet

You’ve probably heard of a rap sheet but might not know what it really is. A rap sheet is a legal document that records an individual's criminal history. (“RAP” stands for Record of Arrests and Prosecutions.) Fortunately for job seekers, employers can’t access a job candidate’s rap sheet when running a background check, says Cynthia Brackett, senior director of vocational services at the Center for Employment Opportunities.

Brackett recommends reviewing your rap sheet to know what’s on there that you should be prepared to discuss. “Checking your rap sheet will let you know if any of your convictions have been sealed,” she says. “For example, if you were convicted as a minor and the record has been sealed, you don’t have to disclose that when you go on an interview.”

Furthermore, not every employer is going to want to know absolutely everything in your past. “If an employer is only asking about felonies, there’s no reason to disclose you have a misdemeanor,” says Brackett. “Also, if an employer is only asking about convictions from the past three years, you don’t need to out yourself if you were convicted before that.”

Every state government has a rap sheet provider. If you spot errors on yours, Brackett recommends reaching out to the Legal Action Center, a non-profit law and policy organization that helps people with criminal records fight discrimination.

How to talk about your record

Your inclination during an interview might be to hope that the topic of your past doesn’t come up at all. In fact, it might not—in a number of states and cities, it’s illegal for employers to ask candidates about their criminal history on job applications—but an employer will find out eventually. And if it looks like you tried to bury your past, well, that would be a foolish move on your part.

“Don’t try to hide anything or brush a serious crime under the rug,” says Dawn Standerwick, a member on the board of directors at the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.

You need to be prepared to address your past during job interviews. After all, “you want to provide context to the employer before the person’s imagination kicks in,” says Brackett. “At the same time, this isn’t the place to spill your guts or to re-plead your case.”

Instead of making excuses for your behavior, you want to tell a complete story that not only explains your past, but also lays out what steps you’ve taken to move forward. “Focus on what you’ve done since your conviction to leave that part of your life behind,” Brackett advises.

Try this as a template:

“I served [X] years of time at a correctional facility [X] years ago. Here’s what I learned from it [list two to three learning lessons]. ... Here’s how I changed my life [point to two to three tangible examples/proof of change]... Here’s how I’ll bring value to your company [mention two to three ways you’ll contribute]...”

Once your record comes up, a hiring manager might ask direct questions about your charges. Because the law can be confusing, you may be required to provide additional information. For example, a hiring manager may hear you say the words “aggravated assault,” and think perhaps it was a gun offense when, in reality, it was a bar fight. “You should be able to explain how your conviction applies to your individual situation,” says Brackett.

Pro tip: Limit your explanation to two minutes or less, and memorize it so you’re confident in your delivery. Then, rather than pausing and waiting for a reaction, move onto how you’ll benefit the company.

Interviewing can be stressful, especially if you have a criminal record. Prepare your story and believe in your own transformation. You’ve had time to build skills and focus on your growth, and owning your past shows accountability and confidence. Be honest, accommodating, and enthusiastic. There’s a far greater chance that people will notice the person you are now.

Get your resume in shape

If you feel like you’re coming into the job search at a disadvantage, there’s a surefire way you can help turn that around. A clear, professional-looking resume that highlights your skills and work history can help you stand out. Can you use some help with that? Get a free resume evaluation today from the experts at Monster's Resume Writing Service. You'll get detailed feedback in two business days, including a review of your resume's appearance and content, and a prediction of a recruiter's first impression. It’s a quick and easy way to help level the playing field.

Legal disclaimer: None of the information provided herein constitutes legal advice on behalf of Monster.