February 29, 2012
How to overcome a criminal record when job hunting
Q: My son is 22 years old and will be graduating from college in a year with a degree in accounting and finance. When he was 20, he was arrested at school and convicted of a Class 3 felony for possession of marijuana. Our fear is that he will not be considered for jobs because this is on his record. What do you recommend he do as far as his resume is concerned or to improve his chances of getting an interview?
A: Employers don't take kindly to those who must check "yes" next to the "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" box. That's a shame on many levels.
It can drastically limit the opportunities available to people who have paid their debts to society. In some cases, the inability to find a job because of a criminal record can drive people back to committing crimes, a key aspect of the nation's ridiculously high recidivism rate.
But while a felony certainly complicates a job search, it isn't an impossible hurdle to overcome.
I spoke with Constantine Bitsas, director of client services at Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based group that works with people with criminal records and helps them find employment.
He said one of the keys in finding employment when you carry a felony conviction is to be unfailingly honest. When asked whether you've been convicted of a felony, don't try to deny it and hope the employer doesn't run a background check. That will likely come back to bite you.
"If the question does come up, we do advise people to answer honestly," Bitsas says. "Don't misrepresent yourself, but try to explain that it was a one-time offense. Take responsibility. Say, 'I understand what I did was a mistake, and I do regret that.' Take ownership, but try to communicate that you learned something from it."
If you're not asked about any convictions, Bitsas said, there's no reason to bring it up. If nobody asks, you do nothing wrong by not mentioning it, but if they ask, be straight.
Of course, many job applications ask the question but don't allow any room for explanation, and that will often result in an applicant not getting an in-person interview.
There's not much you can do about that. It just takes persistence in the job search, and you need to make it a priority to get face-to-face time with the employer so you have the opportunity to state your case.
It is possible to have criminal records expunged, but Bitsas said that is a lengthy process that involves getting clemency from the governor of your state.
"Chances are it will get denied," he says. "Many times, people have to apply several times to get that."
Bitsas also suggests, once you get an interview or can explain the conviction in writing, highlighting the parts of your life that demonstrate you're a responsible person: grades in school, degrees, volunteer work. Those details will further demonstrate that the conviction was an aberration.
"If you can show that you're a person with good judgment and this was just a one-time mistake, and everything else backs that up, that really is critical," Bitsas says.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email.
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