How to Answer Criminal Background Questions on Job Applications and in Interviews
Job interviews are intended for learning more about you through your past experience. Employers and hiring managers are curious how your education, previous employers, and the industry have shaped you, and if the person you’ve become would be a perfect fit for their business.
Unfortunately, discussing your past can also drudge up some aspects that you would rather forget. If you have a criminal record, you may struggle to find the right way to bring it up in an interview, or you may wonder if you even have to at all. Employers are eager to learn more about you, but do they really need to know all about your history with the law?
Depending on the state you live in, you may not have to mention your criminal history at all. However, the majority of private employers — and all government employers — perform detailed background checks on applicants, and it’s much better to tell them upfront about your history than for them to find out through a background check.
How should you answer questions about your background and criminal record if an interviewer asks? When do you need to disclose, and how can you do it professionally and in a positive light? Let’s look at the best ways to discuss your criminal record when you’re in an interview with a potential employer.
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How to Answer Criminal History Question on a Job Application
Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to discussing your record with a potential employer. However, that doesn’t mean you should give yourself free reign to tell them the whole story — that can jeopardize your chances if you give too much information. So how do you find a balance?
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To start, make sure you are reading everything carefully on your application for employment. Not all applications will ask for your criminal record — some employers may be prohibited by state law, and others may wait to ask until an interview — but you certainly don’t want to misread or lie on your application.
It’s always best to keep your answer to a simple “yes/no”, but you can also provide a small and simple explanation (if asked or if you feel you need to) that explains certain aspects, such as when it happened, if you were found not-guilty after an arrest, or if you served a certain amount of years for your sentence, for example. You can simplify even further and follow up your “yes/no” by saying you will explain your record in person in an interview.
Letter of Explanation
However, some applications may ask for a letter of explanation, in which case you should provide all the pertinent details to your record. Be sure not to include too much unnecessary information, and stay away from making excuses. It’s better to be honest about your charges and time spent, and use that to place a positive spin on how you grew and learned from the experience. The employer won’t be interested in your personal opinion about your own case.
Make sure you do your research into your own criminal record before you finalize your application. This is why it’s so important to know your record: so that you can accurately and honestly report it on your application or in an interview. If you fail to mention a conviction or arrest, and the employer happens to find it in a background check, then it may appear as if you’re trying to hide something. The employer will likely immediately distrust you, and may not give your application a second chance.
Know Your Local and Federal Laws
Additionally, besides knowing your own record, you should also research the laws in your state that may prohibit employers from asking about your criminal record. On a federal level, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) have specific protections regarding background checks and prohibiting employers from discriminating against those with a criminal record.
Arrest Record vs Criminal Record
One common area of confusion for employers and applicants is the difference between an arrest (non-conviction) and a criminal conviction. Unfortunately, even if you’ve only been arrested in the past few years but were found not-guilty later on, that arrest can still appear on your background check for up to seven years after the fact. Because it may appear, you should be prepared to report it on your application or in an interview.
When reporting arrests, be sure to also report the status of that arrest. There are three possible statuses that may appear on a background check:
- Arrest (pending trial)
- Arrest (non-conviction / not guilty)
- Arrest (conviction / guilty)
If you have an arrest that resulted in a conviction, be careful how you word your explanation: saying you “committed the crime” appears much more incriminating than saying you “pled guilty to charges.”
Seven Year Rule on Arrests (Non-Convictions)
Luckily, after being on the record for seven years, the FCRA prohibits reporting agencies from sharing your arrest (non-convictions) with potential employers. Unfortunately, mistakes can still happen, but you also have the legal protection of the FCRA, and employers are required to provide you with information on how to contest your record if it is false or misleading, and has caused you to lose out on the job opportunity.
Arrests that did result in a conviction, however, may remain on your record indefinitely, unless you go through the process of expungement. If your record has been expunged (or sealed by the courts in the case of juvenile convictions), then it should not appear on any background check your employer performs, and you do not have to report it on an application or in an interview.
Misdemeanors vs Felonies
Besides arrests, any misdemeanor and felony charges you’ve had will also show up on a criminal background check. It will be important for you to report them if you’re asked, but first you should read up on your specific state laws regarding disclosure of a conviction.
In California, for example, recent laws have been passed that limit what an employer can ask, and what an applicant is required to disclose. However, even then, employers are still allowed to perform a background check once a position has been offered to the applicant — so mentioning your convictions can still be important, but you get to decide when and where you bring that information up.
Regardless, misdemeanors and felonies are both considered semi-serious and serious offenses, and it’s important for you to put a positive spin on what your convictions have taught you. Additionally, be cautious of what jobs you’re applying for and if your convictions could potentially disqualify you from the job. For instance, if you have a felony burglary charge, you will most likely not be able to get a job at a bank or similar money-institution. However, you may be able to find employment in a different industry, such as marketing or engineering.
Luckily, even felonies and misdemeanors can be expunged by the courts. If you have the ability to go through the process of expungement, you may be able to get your convictions removed from the record for good.
How to Explain a Criminal Record During an Interview
In an interview setting, you can often have more control over when the topic of your criminal record is brought up, and how the charges appear to the potential employer. If you have a criminal record, be prepared to discuss it during the interview process. The employer may already know about your convictions if they asked for that on your application, but they may want to hear more from you in the interview. Additionally, some employers may be required by law to wait until an interview before they ask about any criminal history.
Control the Timing
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, interviews are all about diving into your past so the employer can get a better picture of who you are as a person. One of their first questions may be to request a summary of your past employment history. Surprisingly, this may also be one of the best times to mention your criminal history, as well.
The Earlier, the Better
Although it may seem bizarre, bringing up your criminal history early in an interview can give you more time to put a positive spin on your image. If you were to wait until the end of the interview, you may leave a sour impression on the hiring manager. So instead, prepare to explain yourself early on, and then you can use that information to better explain how it’s shaped you into an experienced and qualified individual. Mentioning it early can also build trust with the employer — you’re not hiding any past mistakes, and are owning up to them, which shows to some that you’re a trustworthy and responsible person.
For example, after answering the first question about your work history or a general “describe yourself” request, you could conclude with something similar to this:
“I’d also like to bring your attention to the fact that I was arrested // was found guilty of [X] // served [X] years of time at a correctional facility [X] years ago. Here’s some things I learned about the experience: [list two to three positive lessons]. … I’ve grown considerably from this, and have worked hard to change my life [point to two to three tangible examples and proof of change]. … Here’s how my unique experiences and perspective will bring value to your company [mention two to three ways you’ll contribute]. …”
Finally, bringing up your background first allows you the element of controlling the narrative. If the interviewer is the first person to bring it up, you may struggle to grasp control over the story, and may feel like you’re trying to come up with excuses instead of describing what you’ve learned.
Keep it Short and to the Point
In all, your personal description, work history, and criminal record explanation should only take about two minutes to explain. That may not seem like a lot of time, but you want to keep your criminal record explanation short, to the point, and positive. Throughout the interview, you can further build on lessons you’ve learned (both due to your record and due to your work history) and other common interview topics. Additionally, you should always discuss your background in person — whether over video call, phone call, or face-to-face — and you should not mention your criminal history on a resume or cover letter.
Put a Positive Spin on Everything
It can be difficult to own up to your mistakes, but even employers and hiring managers can understand that you’re human and are willing to learn and grow from your past. Keep this in mind when you start describing your criminal background information.
When it comes to explaining your record in a positive light, the best thing you can do is show how long ago that conviction or arrest was and how your current lifestyle has changed since then. Your past is exactly that: the past. Here are some other things to keep in mind when explaining your criminal record:
- Avoid excuses and do not blame others for your conviction. Even if the arresting officer was acting unprofessional, or your defense attorney was inexperienced, explaining that to an employer will only come across as you not taking responsibility for your actions. Don’t blame others, and try to only talk about yourself.
- Keep descriptions brief and only give enough information for the employer to understand the nature of the offense. If they want to ask more questions, you can provide them with a bit more detail, but avoid rambling about your conviction or arrest. If you spend too much time explaining it, you may seem like you’re aggrandizing your charges or acting self-righteous.
- Mention any rehabilitation efforts you’ve made and list what you’ve learned from the experience. It could be that you were required to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, or attended drug rehab. Don’t explain these situations in detail, but do spend some time explaining how they helped shape you and change your lifestyle choices.
- Mention how your life has changed since then. It’s always good to draw distance between your past convictions and the person you are today. Even if your arrest was only a year ago, a lot can change in that time, and you can explain to the employer some positive lessons you’ve learned from this negative experience. You’ve worked hard to build yourself back up, and that’s worth celebrating. Feel free to give examples of how you’ve given back to others or the community (such as through volunteer work, even if it was a mandatory part of your sentence), how you’ve taken care of yourself, and how you’ve changed your behavior.
- Explain how you could benefit the employer with your strengths and conviction. Your hard work and determination to change is something that could benefit almost any business — you’re willing to put in the hours to make a difference, and that’s something you should highlight.
Once you’ve provided an explanation and some examples on how your behavior has changed, you can then pivot the conversation into your strengths and weaknesses. It’s also important to keep in mind that some hiring managers may be taking notes on what you say, so feel free to pause after explaining yourself so that they can catch up and ask the next question, if needed.
Prepare to Answer Common Questions
Once you’ve talked about your past criminal record, you may be faced with further questions for clarification. These follow-up questions can help the employer get a better idea of how you’ve grown and learned, and how the conviction may appear on a background check. Be sure to be honest when responding to these questions, but also keep your responses concise and simple. Don’t lie, but you don’t need to disclose more than what is necessary, either.
Depending on what you’ve already disclosed, the question may range from “what was your conviction” to “explain the charges.” And certainly, some sentences may need further explanation. For example, aggravated assault can be both a gun violation and a small bar brawl, and if you were charged due to the ladder situation it’s worth explaining that to the employer so they can better understand your situation. Again, be sure to avoid excuses, do admit to realizing your error, and possibly use these questions to further express your excitement to contribute positively to the business.
Positive, Honest, and Focused on Transformation
In the end, the portrait you paint of yourself should be positive, focused on your skills and experiences, and shows that you’re willing to be accountable for your mistakes and make confident changes to overcome them. It can be difficult to overcome a conviction and find an employer that is willing to look past your history, but it will be all the more rewarding when a business is able to do that.
Your transformation is something you should be proud of, and you’ve worked hard to prove your change. By remaining honest, accountable, and enthusiastic, employers may be able to see your true potential.
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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth