How to ace your job interview if you’re an ex-offender (or even if you’re not)

The ladies in my class had their mock interviews last week… and I’m happy to report they came through with flying colors!  The interviewers were very impressed with how the women  conducted themselves, particularly in terms of using the 4E’s: 
  • There was lots of eye contact.
  • They exhibited loads of energy and enthusiasm,
  • And best of all, each one of them provided plenty of examples to back up their experiences and qualifications for the job. 

 I’m so proud of all their hard work and perseverence. And it got me to thinking that just as ex-offenders face some standard stumbling blocks, there are some basic ways to ace the interview: 

 1.  Concentrate on what you can do.    This starts even before you go into the interview when you’re setting your goals and devising a  strategy.  Yes, if you have a criminal conviction there are likely to be some jobs you will no longer be able to get.  One of my students with a background in  law enforcement knew those doors were now closed to her. Another realized accounting jobs were out after an  embezzlement conviction.  Both had to go through a mourning process, but they didn’t get stuck there.  Instead, they looked at how their skills could transfer to another profession.  One useful way to do this is is to visit ONET, an online occupational site.  By choosing advanced search, you can enter your experience and abilities and find the jobs that need those skills.
2.  Be more than prepared.   You have bigger  obstacles to overcome than the average job applicant, so you’re going  to have to work harder.  There is no reason why you shouldn’t have answers to the most basic interview questions. If you’re stumped on what the questions are, or how to answer them, there are plenty of books in the library such as Martin Yate’s Knock ’em Dead Job Search Guide series , or others that offer sample answers to tough interview questions, such as this  or this. Write down your answers and practice them. Try them on your family and friends.  Listen to their feedback.  Listen to your heart.  Research the company and show up with questions and reasons why you would be a good fit for their organization.  The best way to overcome doubts a potential employer may have about hiring  someone with a record is to come across as competent, prepared and not at all what they were expecting.
3. Tell the truth.   I know you hear it time and again.  If you’re asked about your record, be honest. For one, it’s the best way to truly put your past behind you and start over. A mistake that you’re upfront about can’t come back to haunt you, whereas a lie can get you fired.  In the world of google, it’s too easy for an employer or anyone else for that matter to find out information about you. Don’t believe me?  Try doing a google search on yourself, which many job search experts recommend,  anyway.    So instead of wasting time covering up, it’s better to take responsibility by answering questions about your background honestly.  


4. Keep it brief .  An interview  isn’t the time for drawn out  confessions.  If you’re asked about your criminal record, it’s okay to answer this question  simply and move on.  There’s no need to go into detail about specific charges unless you’re asked.  What’s important is that you look the person in the eye and  acknowledge your mistake.  Then you can quickly  move on  to what you’ve learned, how youv’e changed and how you’re working to turn your life around.  Mention any positive steps you’ve taken  while serving your sentence.  For example:  “Yes.  At the time of my crime, my thinking was distorted by drugs.  I realize I caused a lot of people pain and regret that.  But since then I’ve  gone to rehab and managed to stay clean.  I’ve also completed my GED and taken a course in computers  to better prepare myself for the job market  so that I can become a productive member of society”…..  Remember less is usually more.  Chatty job applicants often lose out on jobs because they volunteer too much information.  So take a deep breath and don’t rush to fill every silence.   Avoid negatives, long explanations and getting too comfortable.  Instead, keep your comments short, well-thought out and to the point. 

5. Back it up.  As noted above, bring examples to support any assertions you make about your accomplishments or experiences.  One former student of mine was looking for  a job in sales.  But when she got an interview, she didn’t just say she was good in sales, she was able to back it up with evidence — she was the #1 sales person at the store where she worked.  You should have similar examples for every question you might be asked, even if you have to write them down so you don’t forget.  What was your biggest accomplishment?  Can you give an example of a time you’ve shown initiative or resolved a problem on the job?  Everyone has had successes.  Make sure you’re able to explain and get credit for yours.   

6. Close strong.   Interviewers typically end the interview by asking if you have any questions.  The only acceptable answer is YES.   This is where you get a chance to show that you’re curious and have researched the company.  Almost any question is good here, though you should probably save the questions about pay and benefits for after you’re given a job offer.  Some good examples:  What happened to the last person who had this job? What kind of training and advancement opportunities are typical for this position?   How soon do you expect to fill this position?     After your questions have been answered, it is a good time to reiterate your strengths and interest in the job and why you would be the best person to meet the employers needs.  I’ll cover some approaches to this pitch in a future post.    




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2 responses to “How to ace your job interview if you’re an ex-offender (or even if you’re not)

  1. Robert Prater

    What I don’t understand is where insurance companies come into play. For instance I have never taken drugs nor have I stolen anything from anyone or place. I have a crime involving protecting my son from a pedophile. I did break the law and I pled guilty without complaints. I served 10 years and now on parole. I cannot even get a job washing and detailing cars nor even dishwashing.

  2. Tracy

    One thing that I did and found helpful was to avoid filling out applications at first. I mailed my resume to places I was interested in – even if their website indicated to download and submit an online application. When I got an interview I made sure to everything I could to impress. I let my personality shine it’s brightest and at the appropriate time (later in the interview) I’d say, “I want to make you aware that in 1997, I was convicted of a felony drug crime, for which I served a 6 year term of incarceration. Since that time, I have completed 500 hours of residential treatment, I’ve volunteered for my community, was a nominee for the Annual Women of Achievement Award, etc.” Just fill in what you have done prove you’re rehabilitated and have turned your life around completely. I’ve never had a negative response. In fact, people are usually 1) surprised that this nice, personable, well-dressed, and articulate person actually went to prison and 2) impressed at the effort and determination it must have taken to turn my life around.

    At this point, if they are asking me to fill out an application it means that I’ve gotten the job and the application simply needs to be on file. However, I’m not concerned about the dreaded “have you ever been convicted of a crime” question because they already know.

    Do whatever you can to have proof that you’re committed to change and then you can use the fact that you’re an ex-offender to your advantage. Believe it or not, but if you do the work to offset your conviction people will actually be impressed. They’ll relate what you’ve had to do to overcome your past to what you will do to succeed at your job.

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