People with criminal backgrounds have some of the brightest red flags flying. In the United States over 2 million people are currently incarcerated; 600,000 are annually released on probation; nearly 5 million people remain on parole or probation; and over 30 million people have some type of conviction on their record.

That's millions of red flags waving in front of employers! So, why would an employer want to hire someone with a criminal background?

The answer is simple: Thousands of employers hire ex-offenders each day because they have desirable skills and work habits; many also work for very low wages. But they want to hire rehabilitated ex-offenders who take responsibility and do not pose problems for the employer and fellow employees.

The first knock-out question most ex-offenders face often appears on an application form or in the job interview: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony? If yes, give details."

If you have been convicted, how should you best respond to this question on an application form? You basically have four choices:
  1. Lie by saying "no."
  2. Don't respond; just leave it blank and go on to another question.
  3. Be truthful by saying "yes" and giving the details.
  4. Be truthful by saying "yes" and then follow up by saying "details provided at the interview."

Do not lie. Lying will just delay the inevitable; the employer will most likely find out about your conviction during a background check.

Your best course of action would be #4 - inform the employer that you will provide details at the interview. You want to do this because you need to be in control of the story relating to your conviction.

Once you get to the interview, the interviewer may ask about your conviction. This is the time to do two things:
  1. Take responsibility for your actions. Give a very brief overview of what happened to you - the crime, the conviction, the outcome. You should be able to do this in just one minute.

  2. Focus on how you have changed your life for the better because of this experience. Remember, the employer wants to hire your future, not your past. Let him know you are a mature, trustworthy, and loyal individual who has the requisite motivation, attitudes, and skills to do the job in question. You've learned important life lessons. Now you want to get on with a new and productive life. You only ask that the employer give you a chance to earn his trust and prove your value. This part of your story may take three to five minutes. But again, don't talk too much - just enough to let the employer know you are a new and potentially very productive person.

Employers are like many other people: sympathetic to those who have made mistakes but who are willing to take responsibility and make sincere efforts to change their lives. It's part of our culture of forgiveness, redemption, and self-transformation.

Whatever you do, make sure you stress your future rather than dwell on your past.

But let's also acknowledge that some criminal activities are difficult to deal with in the job market. For example, if you have been convicted of assault, murder, or a sex crime, your red flag is bigger than most red flags of ex-offenders.

These are frightening crimes for many employers, who do not want the liability of such individuals working next to other employees. If you've done time for such crimes, you'll need to put together a rehabilitation portfolio as well as seek jobs with employers who are known to work with such ex-offenders.

SOURCE: Adapted from Caryl and Ron Krannich, Ph.D.s, Job Interview Tips for People With Not-So-Hot Backgrounds (Manassas Park: Impact Publications), pages 104-108. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.