How to address your criminal history in a job interview
A record does not have to be a deal-breaker.
The question, “Tell me about your record?” can be a very different question to different people. For job candidates with a criminal background, however, that question can be difficult to answer.
While questions about your legal issues may be uncomfortable to answer in an interview, you can use them to show how you’ve turned things around, discuss your talents and turn a perceived negative into a positive.
Mention your criminal history early in the process
Although it may seem counterintuitive, mentioning a conviction early allows you to take control and explain the circumstances on your terms. Disclosing information upfront builds trust. If the interviewer discovers your criminal history and has to dig to find out more, it looks like you’re trying to hide something.
Most interviews begin with a general question like, “Tell me about yourself.” Kick it off by mentioning two or three positive credentials in about 60 seconds, then divulge your record.
When you get to your record, you can use this as a template:
“I’d also like to bring your attention to the fact that 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]. ...”
Limit this explanation to two minutes or less. Memorize it so you’re confident in your delivery. Rather than pausing and waiting for a reaction, move into how you’ll benefit the company. (It’s not necessary to mention the crime you were incarcerated for at this point. If the interviewer wants more details, she’ll ask.)
Why timing is important
Being straightforward with an interviewer shows you’re truthful and that you take ownership of your past. Everyone makes mistakes. Readily admitting to them shows you’re human and you’ve learned from them.
Most employers conduct criminal background checks, so they’ll find out one way or another. Laying it out at the beginning prevents the interviewer from bringing it up first.
That said, listing your record on a résumé or cover letter is not a good idea. You only want to discuss your record in person with an interviewer. Do list your record honestly if required on an application, and note that you’ll explain in the interview.
Ellen Mulqueen, writing for The Gladiator, said it best: “This is your turn to re-educate the employer about incarceration.”
How to answer questions about your record
Once your record comes up, the interviewer may want to know more. Here are a few things to prepare for:
If you’ve served multiple sentences, say you’ve served a total of [X] years by adding the time together. Never lie, but if you aren’t specifically asked about multiple sentences, don’t provide more information than the interviewer needs to make a decision about you.
If asked about your offense, keep the explanation short. Don’t make excuses or say, “I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Reiterate how your incarceration helped you realize your error, and express your excitement to contribute.
Some criminal charges are frequently misunderstood and could benefit from some explanation. For example, aggravated assault often implies a gun offense, when in reality, it could have been a bar fight.
Roy Cohen, a career coach who teaches Defy Ventures’ career training, notes, “We want the interviewer to ask the right questions at the right time, but we don’t want them to think that we’re hiding anything.”
Even if you don’t get the response you’re hoping for, never lie about your record. The employer will find out eventually, and dishonesty will make you appear untrustworthy.
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.
Catherine Hoke is the founder and CEO of Defy Ventures, a national nonprofit that serves people with criminal histories. Defy “transforms street hustle” by providing entrepreneurship training, executive mentoring, startup funding, career development and job placement. Defy hosts business plan competitions in which people compete for $100,000 in startup funding. Defy is currently enrolling its next class of entrepreneurs. To find out more about how Defy Ventures can help you or someone you love, click here.
Legal Disclaimer: None of the information provided herein constitutes legal advice on behalf of Monster.