Job hunting is a tough enough challenge for the average person, but if you have a criminal record, finding a job can seem downright impossible.
Some employers don’t bother checking your background, but some choose to exercise their authority to check your criminal history after they make you a conditional offer. Despite efforts to “ban the box,” there are still plenty of qualified candidates turned down for jobs because of past mistakes.
In some cases, depending on the job and depending on the crime, you might be automatically disqualified from being hired. In other cases, even if the crime for which you were convicted would have no bearing on the job for which you’ve applied, you might still be bumped to the bottom of the applicant pool. And if it comes down to a decision between you and someone without a criminal history, chances are you’re not going to be the choice.
Ready to turn over a new leaf? This is what you should know when you’re job hunting with a criminal past.
Why employers do criminal record searches
Who can blame employers for wanting to find out if they’re about to hire a convicted embezzler as their next CFO? Plus, a company that doesn’t do background checks may be liable if it hires someone who commits a violent act, steals from a business partner, or sexually harasses co-workers.
In other words, employers that don’t do background checks before hiring employees are assuming a lot of risk.
What companies can check
Although there’s no national database that employers can check for felony convictions, many states make residents’ criminal background information available. The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system provides online access to federal court records, which employers can use to see if you’ve been involved in civil or criminal court cases.
“Under federal law, criminal convictions are reportable indefinitely, unless your state provides otherwise,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
Still, most states have laws about what’s fair game when checking criminal histories, says Jeff Shane, president at Allison & Taylor, a professional reference-checking and employment-verification company based in Rochester, Michigan. For example, a state may allow employers to look back only five years, or to consider felonies but not misdemeanors.
What if you were arrested but not convicted? Well, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is the federal statute that allows employers to use arrest records from the past seven years when making hiring decisions. However, as the experts noted above, certain states have laws that preclude the statute, so depending on where your arrest occurred, an employer may or may not be able to use that against you.
Employers can also check your DMV record to see if have a DUI, speeding tickets, or moving violations, Shane adds.
Note that your record might not even come into consideration during the job application process. There are a growing number of states and cities that are adopting “ban-the-box” laws, which prohibit inquiries about criminal history on job applications and even prevent use of a background check until the final stages of hiring. This guide from Nelp.org shows what states and local municipalities have ban-the-box laws.
How your background can affect your job hunt
Depending on what your crime was, when it happened, and the job that you’re applying for, there may be mitigating factors that employers will take into consideration. For instance, there’s a difference between a single instance of car theft 25 years ago, and a dozen convictions for car theft.
In most cases, if your past crime is related to the position you’re seeking, it can (and likely will) be used to disqualify you from the job. For example, if you were convicted of embezzling money, the odds of you getting hired as an accountant are slim to none.
Worried about what’s going to show up on your background check? Take a proactive approach by running a criminal background report on yourself prior to seeking employment, advises Philadelphia career coach Rita Friedman. For a fee, you can order a criminal background check using a third party like Alison & Taylor, Good Hire, or Criminal Watchdog.
Check for errors on your report, since background check companies routinely mismatch people with similar names, report an arrest without reporting that no charges were filed, reveal sealed or expunged information, list single charges multiple times, or misclassify misdemeanors as felonies.
If you spot an error, you can dispute it with that particular company. You can also file a complaint with the FTC at FTC.gov or at 1-877-382-4357. (While the FTC can’t make corrections to your background check, it can investigate and sue the background check company if it finds evidence of wrongdoing.)
What you’ve done since your conviction and the rehabilitation you’ve completed may also come into play. Still, “there’s no need to over-explain,” says Friedman, who recommends preparing for job interviews a brief explanation of what happened and what you learned from the experience. Emphasize that you are committed to making a positive contribution to society and see this job as a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
Get some help with your resume
Embarking on a job search isn’t easy, and it can be especially intimidating if you have a background that is less than favorable. But a criminal record shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a good-paying job. What you need to do is to get your resume into shape.