How to answer interview questions about your criminal record

A reader recently wrote to ask about how to deal with what he referred to as “the inevitable questions about my record” during a  job search. Since this is a major hurdle  for most ex-offenders, I thought it might be worth sharing what most re-entry experts tell their clients.

Be honest.   Background checks are simply too easy to do these days to run the risk of being dishonest.   And even if you don’t get caught right away, if your employer finds out later that’s grounds to fire you — as a few of my students confess they’ve learned the hard way. 

Take responsibility   One of my fellow instructors refers to this as “owning it.”  You’ve got to admit your conviction and not make excuses.   For some people this can be as simple as saying, “yes, I was convicted of a felony” and giving the reason (my judgment was clouded by…immaturity, drugs, financial stress, poor values, hanging with the wrong crowd, etc.)  Others may feel compelled to identify the offense, perhaps because of mitigating circumstances.  Just remember to keep it brief, look the employer in the eye  and beware of too much information.

Move on.  This is the point where you want to talk about concrete things you have done to improve yourself and turn your life around.  Getting your GED, completing a drug program, holding down a succession of jobs since your release, pursuing further education or training — anything that shows steps you have taken  to change. 

Acknowledge the employer’s concerns    Say something such as, “I understand how you may be hesitant or you may have concerns, BUT, I want to assure you that I will do a great job for you.”    As uncomfortable as this may be to acknowledge, it shows the employer that you are sensitive to his/her concerns, but determined now to let your past interfere with your work life.

Make your pitch and close.   End with a bang by reiterating that you  have the skills and attitude for the position and that you will do a great job. 

Following,  are some more detailed  examples of how to deal with this tough question, courtesy of an  OAR workshop on interview skills:

Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

“Unfortunately, yes. When I was younger and very foolish, I was convicted of  a felony.  I absolutely regret my actions and committed myself to changing — which I have. Since that time I have taken courses, had excellent job review and become focused on where I want to go with my life.  I am never going to make those kinds of choices again.  I understand you may have concerns about this, but please be assured that I have left those poor decisions in the past.  I am committed to doing an excellent job for you.  I have the skills required for this job, and I hope you will consider me for this position. 

In your application, you wrote “will discuss at interview,” in answer to the question of whether you’ve been convicted of a felony, could you explain that to me now? 

“Sir, I want you to know that in the past I made a poor decision which was to get involved with drugs.  It got to the point that the Courts got involved and I can honestly say that it was the best thing to happen to me.  Because of that I completed substance abuse treatment and have been clean for two years.  I am a productive member of my community and will never go back to that life.  I completely understand if you have concerns.  However, I want you to know that I am tested regularly, I am committed to clean living and going to work every day.  I have a lot of skills in this area and know I can do a great job for your company if you allow me the opportunity to show you.”

Is there anything in your personal history that I should be aware of before doing a background check?

“I don’t think that there is anything that will  prevent me from being an outstanding maintenance manager for your company.  However, I would like to share with you that I was convicted of a felony.  I grew up in a bad neighborhood and made some poor choices.  While I was incarcerated, however, I made a decision to turn my life around and completed my GED.  I’m also working towards completing a welding certification program.  I believe I have the skills I need to be successful and am eager to also learn on the job.  Most importantly, I’m willing to work as hard as I need to in order to convince you that I am an honest, dependable and motivated employee.

Remember, these are just examples to get you thinking.    Why don’t you try to answer this question yourself in your own words.  Practice it out loud a few times.   Once  you are comfortable with what you have, send it to me at this blog.  I’ll run the best ones, and offer suggestions on how you might make yours better.


Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, jobs ex-offenders, taking responsibility

15 responses to “How to answer interview questions about your criminal record

  1. Pingback: How to answer interview questions about your criminal record « Out … | The law and You

  2. James E. Walker Jr.

    Great advice, Kathy!

  3. Thanks, James. I always hope it is, but it’s nice to hear. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Access, Fairness, Respect, and Confidentiality: Part 2 on Ethics and Boundaries in Workforce Development | NCWD/Youth – The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth

  5. Chuck

    Hi Katy,

    Thank you very much for this article Katy.

    I am having a hard time with this. Most applications I’ve encountered ask for the applicant to explain on a separate sheet of paper in full detail; however, most employment advocates say that less is more. How can you do the less part when you need to explain details? Or am I reading to much in to it and so the applicant need only list convection details such as charges, place, year, and outcome?

    • Hi Chuck,

      So sorry to hear you’re having a difficult time. Applications can be a challenge, particularly since most ask if you have ever been convicted of a felony. (There are cities where they have successfully “banned the box”, but it doesn’t sound like you live in one of them, unfortunately.) You’re right in trying to adhere to “less is more” when filling out a job application. Generally, the advice we give to applicants in answering questions about a record is to write “will discuss at interview,” rather than going into detail about any convictions. That way, if the company or employer is interested in your experience, you’re more likely to get a callback and a chance to tell your story. If at that point, the employer wants a detailed list of past convictions, I agree that charges, place, year and outcome should be sufficient. Even then, you’re only required to list those charges that resulted in a conviction. I hope this helps, and good luck in your job search. Let me know how it goes.

  6. barbara buchanan

    Hi Chuck,
    I have seen successes in responding honestly on the application. Year and conviction. Then, if the sentence has been completed, feel free to say “All issues resolved.”

    Too much explanation appears as though the applicant is trying to wiggle his way out of responsibility. However, too little information appears as though the applicant is dishonest.

    Remember, at least in New York State, the employer can only typically obtain information concerning convictions, so stay focussed on that, not the details behind the charges.

    Best wishes,

  7. Santana

    I just read the article, and I have an job interview in about an hour,…so hopefully some of the tips you’ve touched upon will help me obtain employment. I will let you know Good or Bad – It’s all good cause it’s all experience.

  8. Damien Sawyer

    I decided to read some of this advice because I am trying to figure out how to go about my job search…I have a 4th degree misdemeanor. I realize that some employers treat both misdemeanor and felony as black marks (no pun intended), however, my offense wasn’t violence, drug, or theft related. I have listed the offense on my applications previously.

    My offense is violating the city of Cleveland bicycle code (minor misdemeanor), which is also why I was charged with disorderly conduct (not to be confused with DUI), for not stopping the bicycle AFTER the officer threatened to hit me with the car as he was driving westbound in an eastbound lane.

    Long story short, I was arrested for riding an unregistered bicycle on the sidewalk. The officers threatened to throw the bike away, and I was fined $100 and charged two points on my license. I served 1.5 days in jail. This constitutes my record.

    Short of not riding a bicycle AT ALL (previous to my arrest I have had two knee surgeries, so I ride to try and keep my knee joints freer), I’m not sure how I should present myself in a way that shows that a personal improvement “needed” to be made. Any suggestions other than the “now I know better about the bicycle code”?

  9. Amelia

    Thank you very much for a wonderful article. If you have additional info, would you mind email me?

  10. lasagna

    I definitely appreciate this information- Back in 2010 I was convicted of a misdemeanor and then again 2012 another misdemeanor one was for assault and the other failure to stop and give information. I have a bachelor’s degree and I am currently obtaining a masters degree, how do I handle this during an interview?

  11. Monique Davis

    ? How would 1 explain the instance of having a felony due to police misconduct

  12. Monique Davis

    All those were great answers..however how do u explain a wrongful & unlawful conviction..

  13. Terry

    Thank you for your information.

    I would like to know how to respond whe you have pending charges for “white collar” embellzement. Charges have been filed, and arrest has been made, however the case is still pending and not resolved. Your attorney says not to discuss it with anyone.

    What is the best way to handle that type of situation?

    • Hi Terry,

      That’s a tricky one. I take it the person is looking for a new job and has left the company where the embezzlement case originated? Obviously, you should always heed the advice of your attorney for your own protection by not discussing the pending charges. At the same time if you’re interviewing for a new job it’s difficult to imagine that your charges won’t become an issue at some point. You’re not legally obligated to disclose them of course, but they could come up in a background search, or if the potential employer does a quick google search and pulls up a news article. You don’t say how soon you expect the case to be resolved and how, or whether the person actually committed the crime, however that information would make it easier to answer your question.

      In the best case scenario, the embezzlement charges will be resolved quickly and in the person’s favor so they won’t be relevant by the time he or she is offered a new job. But details about the case may still be in the public record, so the person would need to decide how to explain the charges if asked in an interview or if the matter came to light after they were hired. I’d also likely tell this individual, “If you expect you may have to accept responsibility for an embezzlement, it’s worth coming to terms with that now. It’s never too early to think about why you’ve made a mistake, why you wouldn’t be in that situation again and how you’d convey this to someone you’d like to work for. Realistically, companies are wary of hiring someone with a record of embezzlement, so in addition a new career focus on jobs that don’t involve handling financial transactions might also be in order.

      Anyway, I hope this helps. Readers, do you have anything to add? Has anyone ever found themselves in this situation, and if so, how did you handle it?

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