How to Get a Job With a Criminal Record

the outskirts of a family of three highdefinition picture

Whether you've just been released from a lengthy incarceration or you had a minor scrape with the law when you were a kid, a criminal record can be an added source of anxiety in an already stressful job search.  Depending on the severity of your offense(s), yours may not affect your employment prospects at all, or it may make finding a job nearly impossible.  Still, you have reason to be hopeful.  While you may face some hurdles, you will eventually be able to find employment, regardless of your record.

1. Prepare while you are in prison. While in prison take advantage of the many opportunities to get your G.E.D., start or complete your college education, or get vocational training.  Good preparation is especially important if you have been away from the outside world for an extended time, if you have limited job skills and experience, or if you will not be able to return to your previous area of employment (for example, if you were a bank teller and were convicted of theft, you probably will no longer be able to work in banking).

2. Take advantage of education or job training programs that may be available to you.  Government agencies and non-profit organizations provide a host of opportunities for all job seekers to get more training or education.  The experience and skills you develop in these programs can make a big difference in the success of your job search.  There are also such programs targeted specifically to people who have recently been released from prison.  These programs usually also help you find a job during the program and after completion.

3. Eliminate jobs, from your search, for which your record will automatically disqualify you.  Your record may automatically disqualify you for some positions, especially government jobs requiring security clearances, military jobs, and positions with fiduciary responsibility (e.g., insurance or banking), and jobs working with children.  If you avoid wasting time on jobs you cannot possibly get, you’ll be able to focus on real opportunities and you’ll be less likely to get discouraged.  Most importantly, though, do your research.  Don’t just assume that your record will disqualify you from a certain job.

4. Be realistic.  Honestly evaluating your qualifications is important for all job seekers.  You need to find something that fits you and your skill level, and if you consistently apply for jobs for which you don’t have the right skills, you’ll quickly become discouraged.

5. Start small and work your way up.  Understand that when a person sees your record, he or she may be reluctant to hire you for a position with a lot of responsibility.  That same person, however, may be more than willing to give you a chance in another (usually lower-paid) position.  In addition, it’s important to understand that the biggest obstacle may be the gap in your employment history, not simply your conviction.  If you want to return to your previous career, it’s likely that business processes and tools may have changed substantially since you left your last position, so you’ll probably need to take a step down to gain more training. Get your foot in the door, especially with a company or in a field that can lead to better opportunities in the future.

6. Learn about the employment laws in your state and/or country.  In some countries (including the U.S.), employers generally cannot automatically disqualify you based solely on an arrest or even a conviction (if the nature of the crime is relevant to the job, however, they may lawfully base an adverse hiring decision on this).  This is why applications that ask if you’ve been arrested or convicted of a crime usually have a disclaimer stating that a “yes” answer may not necessarily prevent you from being hired.  Know your rights, and consult an attorney or make an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint if an employer unlawfully discriminates against you.

7. Be honest about your history.  It can be tempting to lie when an application asks if you’ve been arrested or convicted of a crime.  Avoid the temptation: not only is this dishonest, chances are the lie will be discovered.  Most employers now conduct some sort of background check, and if they find that you have been dishonest on the application you will almost certainly not be hired.  If you’ve already been hired and the lie is discovered later, you can be fired for it.  In addition, lying on some applications (such as for military enlistment) is a criminal offense.

8. Know what to answer on applications.  Some states and countries now prohibit employers from asking about certain offenses, offenses that are over a certain number of years old, or arrests that did not result in a conviction.  Your research on employment laws should help you know what questions you have to answer.  In addition, be sure to answer only the specific question that is asked.  For example, if the application asks if you’ve been convicted of a crime, you don’t need to put down an arrest that did not result in a conviction.  If a conviction has been sealed or expunged from your record, or if you pled guilty to an offense and completed a pre-trial diversion program (i.e. deferred adjudication) that resulted in no conviction, you may not need to report these either.  Be aware, however, that when enlisting in the military or certain federal government positions, you must report all offenses, even those that have been expunged or sealed.

9. Explain your answer if asked about convictions or arrests.  Job applications and interviewers will give you an opportunity to explain the circumstances behind the offense or alleged offense.  Be sure to take this opportunity if giving more information about the offense may be helpful.

10. Try to get an offense sealed or expunged from your record.  Ask your attorney, public defender, or parole / probation officer whether you may be able to get the offense removed from your record so that you can legally and ethically answer “no” to conviction questions.

11. If you’re willing to work extra hard and you have marketable skills or abilities you may be able to make your own opportunities.  You could start a yard maintenance business or provide contract IT services to companies, for example. You are limited only by your imagination.  Think about what you’re good at and what you like doing, and go for it.  You’ll probably need to have another job while you’re getting your business on its feet, but if your record has you stuck in dead-end jobs, you might as well take a chance.

12. Consider joining the military.  Some people think that the military will take just about anyone, while some think that you can’t get in at all with a criminal record.  In the U.S., they’re both wrong.  The military is selective, but depending on the type and number of offenses and the length of time since an offense, you may be able to get a waiver that will allow you to enlist.  If you don’t live in the U.S., your country’s military may have more or less stringent policies.  Before you enlist, consider the potential dangers of joining the military, but also consider the benefits.  The military can provide job training and instill discipline if you have trouble motivating yourself.

  • Do not get discouraged.  You will find work eventually.  And remember, when hunting for a job, batting average isn't important.  All you have to do is to find one decent job.  If you get that job on the 51st try, the 50 previous rejections will not matter.  Remember, also, that the person who won’t consider anything beyond your record probably isn't a person you'd want to work for, anyway.

  • One tactic that works surprisingly well--try to delay disclosing your offense until as far down the interviewing process as possible.  For example, if you have a serious offense on your record, write "ask" or "will discuss in interview" on the job application.  This way you won't get automatically screened out.  The more people have an opportunity to get to know you, the greater your chances that they will like you and will consider hiring you as a person rather than blocking you out based on some preconceived notion.

  • Especially if you’ve been incarcerated, there is nothing more important than a positive attitude.  If you focus on your resentment of the system and feel upset or cheated by the system, this will serve to “keep you down.”  If, however, you focus on the future and decide that you really want to succeed in the outside world, you will find that you have a lot of opportunity to get free or reduced-cost education, training, and career services to help you on your way.

  • Your parole officer (P.O.) may be a great person, or he or she may be a jerk. Remember that your P.O. can be a great resource in your job hunt, and even if he or she isn’t as helpful as you’d like, it’s still a whole lot easier to deal with the P.O. a few times a month than to deal with correctional officers around the clock.

  • Your Criminal Defense Lawyer is also a good reference and a good person to network with. Often he or she will have friends who can help you with forcing doors to open for you. They can also be helpful with job and career advice. Use them.

  • Build your resume and get good professional references.  Work hard and conscientiously in just about any position, and you can build experience and references that will make your criminal record less important to future employers.  If you have to take an undesirable job, try to keep it in perspective.  Do well in whatever job you take, and get education and training to help you move on.

  • One way to put yourself on target for a job worth winning is to search for job descriptions from specific jobs you feel qualified for, from organizations you would like to work for. Review the job descriptions for the activities and functions of the job. Then review your background against each activity and function individually: Specifically assess your education, training, and work experience related to the jobs needs as you see them. This will offer you a good start toward reviewing your skills and work strengths against typical employers needs. And, you'll be developing language worth using in your interviews.

  • Once you find a job (any job), be careful to avoid associations with criminal-type individuals, do not include prison language in your conversations and separate yourself from circumstances that remind your employer and co-workers about your history of incarceration.  Otherwise, you may be perceived as someone with loyalty to criminals and a criminal lifestyle.  That would really hurt your chances to build trust and keep or advance your job.

  • Do not resort to illegal activities, no matter how dire your circumstances are.  Work hard and take whatever job is available if you have to, but don’t risk getting sent back to prison.

  • If you have recently been released from prison, your job hunt may be particularly difficult, but you cannot afford to get discouraged.  One of the conditions of your parole will likely be that you find a job.  What’s more, studies show that people who find full-time employment in the year after release from prison are far more likely to stay out of prison than those who remain unemployed.

  • One of the saddest things in the world is seeing someone get sent back to prison on a TPV (Technical Parole Violation).  The fact is that there are a lot of things that other people can do without raising an eyebrow that will get you sent back.  It's not fair, but it's reality.  So, don't cut corners.  Don't even get close to violating your terms of parole or probation.  You can't get back to living like a normal human being when you're dead.

  • Unfortunately, some unscrupulous employers try to take advantage of people with a criminal record (particularly those on parole or probation).  They know that you are likely to need a job more than most people, and that you may need to fulfill legal requirements.  If an employer unfairly threatens to fire you or report you to your parole officer in order to get you to work for less money or to perform sexual favors, for example, you should report the behavior to your case supervisor.

  • Lying to a military recruiter about your criminal history is a felony—don’t do it.

Sources and Citations:

[ HIRE Network] A great source of information and assistance for people with criminal records who are trying to re-enter the workforce
[ Reentry Net] An online library on the consequences of criminal convictions
[] Article on getting back into the workforce after incarceration
[ U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] Information on federal employment laws and how to file a discrimination complaint
[ U.S. Army] Article on joining the military with a criminal conviction

No comments