So many things could slow down a job hunt: the economic climate, the industry in which you're seeking employment, your qualifications and more. But having a criminal history could leave a scar on a background check that winnows your options and lengthens your job hunt even more. Keep these six things in mind if you're looking for a job and you have a criminal background.
Study your rights. Get the specifics on your record before starting your search. Arrests without convictions could show up, or perhaps you were convicted for something that didn't require you serve a prison sentence. Depending on the severity of what occurred, your age when the incident happened and the time that's elapsed since the incident, it might be possible to have your record sealed or expunged, which means the information won't come up on a background check. This option is particularly viable if you were a minor at the time of the offense.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there aren't federal laws that prohibit potential employers from asking about arrests and convictions. However, it's unlawful to use criminality as the absolute reason not to hire you. Several state laws do limit or prohibit what prospective employers may ask, and in some states, there are protections on what an applicant is required to report. For example, in California, employers cannot ask candidates about arrests that didn't result in a conviction, but they can inquire about convictions. In New York, employers aren't allowed to access information about arrests without conviction unless the charge is still pending.
Before employers run a background check - which could include a credit, criminal and employment report, depending on your state and the database service the employer uses - they must inform you in writing and receive your written authorization. According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, employers must also notify applicants that credit and criminal reports will not automatically disqualify them for employment. Consult with an attorney on whether you could have your record sealed or expunged, but also discuss with him or her the intricacies of what's permissible and what's not with your record and in your state. Also visit the EEOC's website for information on state laws.
Be realistic. Despite what the law says, some jobs will probably be out of bounds for you. The EEOC website states, "Even if an employer believes that the applicant did engage in the conduct for which he or she was arrested that information should prevent him or her from employment only to the extent that it is evident that the applicant cannot be trusted to perform the duties of the position." In plain speak, an employer could decide against hiring you if the nature of the job conflicts with the nature, seriousness and recency of your offense. Also, "be open to starting at a lower-paying job while you rebuild your reputation, rebuild your skills and rebuild trust with colleagues," says Andrea Kay, career consultant and author of "This Is How to Get Your Next Job: An Inside Look at What Employers Really Want."
Learn how to network. According to Hallie Crawford, certified career coach and founder of the Atlanta-based coaching firm Create Your Career Path, networking might be the best path into a career if you have a record. "Make sure you're on LinkedIn. Find an association for the industry you'd like to work in and attend its meetings. Be sure to find groups that have more employed members than not, because that will boost your confidence more, and because it's easier to make career connections with those who are employed," she says. "Networking is really crucial because often it's the people you and a hiring manager know in common who will make the connection for you [or] who will cause a hiring manager to give you a second look when they wouldn't."
Crawford advises you to also provide personal references, something usually considered inappropriate for most job seekers. "When you're in this situation, what people doubt most is your character," she explains. "Add one or two personal references to the list. Family and friends who are solid citizens. And instead of waiting for an employer to ask to see your references, provide them upfront."
Ask for help. Go a step beyond networking and seek guidance from organizations designed to help job seekers with criminal records. "There are some agencies and nonprofits that offer workshops geared to help you find work when you're in this position, and they're a great option if you don't have the finances to pay a career coach," Kay explains. "If you're currently in prison and soon to get out, talk to those in charge about rehabilitation programs. Discuss your options with your attorney."
Some organizations geared to help include the National Transitional Jobs Network (http://www.heartlandalliance.org/ntjn/), a program that helps participants find employment while also helping them gain skills needed to find work. There's also America Works (http://www.americaworks.com/), which assists hard-to-place job seekers with finding employment.
Be honest, but careful. One of the things a career coach could help with are the nuances of revealing your past. According to a 2013 survey by EmployeeScreenIQ, an employment screening service, 79 percent of the 992 individuals who represented U.S. employers admit to asking applicants to disclose criminal backgrounds on job applications. However, 52 percent of employers in the survey also said they'd be more inclined to hire a candidate who disclosed a conviction before a background check revealed one.
With other written job materials, Kay says: "I would leave criminal record information off of a résumé entirely. And the only reason I'd advise including that information on a cover letter is if you're applying somewhere that the employer has a policy to hire people who were incarcerated."
On interviews, Crawford suggests addressing the issue head on. "Have an answer ready for why it happened but why it isn't an issue anymore. Don't say 'I learned my lesson,' because that's trite. Instead, try, 'These are the productive things I did while I was incarcerated, and this is what I've done since then.'" And make sure not to dwell on the issue. "You want to focus on the positive," she continues. "Go in-depth into how you've rehabilitated, such as 'I've done X amount of volunteer hours,' or 'I've taken these courses to improve my skills.'"
Stay positive. There are some hiring managers who might hesitate to offer you a job, but not every employer will. Even though the job search might be more difficult for you than it is for others, "one of the most important things to do is be confident in your abilities," Crawford says.
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