Tag Archives: background checks

Finding a job with a felony: a success story

What does it take to get a job with a record?   When I teach, I allude to factors like  knowing your strengths, having a plan, dealing with setbacks and never giving up.  But it’s not often that I get an opportunity to show this in action.

Recently, however, a reader wrote in with a story that allows me do just that.  Although he didn’t want his name used, this man, who I’ll call Thomas, agreed to let me share his experiences on the chance that they might help someone else.

When I first heard from Thomas he admitted he was desperate:  

 I’m hoping maybe you can suggest something that I’m overlooking ….I ‘ve now been a year and a half with no job.  I can’t even get a reply to my Pizza Hut delivery driver application.  Right now it is 4:25 AM and I can’t sleep because my nine year marriage is about to collapse primarily because of the job situation…..

Thomas had been convicted nearly 20 years ago.  He’d done his time, made reparations to the victims and then moved overseas.   There, miraculously, he says, he was  hired at the second place he applied for a job, even after he’d told the employer about his  conviction.  Within two years he’d been promoted to supervisor and then to a more senior position.  This led to a better job at a Fortune 500 company. 

His troubles began when he moved back to the U.S.   Even with his work experience, no one would hire him.   When he wrote me he’d given up on his former profession and was considering going to truck driving school.   He’d found a cheaper program in a nearby state and  gotten a small veteran’s scholarship and a  loan to pay for part of it.  Yet he still wasn’t sure how he could afford living expenses.  He wasn’t writing to ask for money, but to see if I had any ideas on how he could finance it.  

I sent a note of encouragement and some suggestions.  He thanked me and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.   

Two days later, he emailed.  He’d called the school and gotten an offer of work study.   He’d contacted parishes and re-entry organizations in the area to find leads for a place to stay. He figured he could cut meal costs by relying on local food pantries, use free internet at the library and cut travel costs by using http://www.gasbuddy.com   He’d also investigated trucking firms to see which ones were receptive to hiring ex-offenders.  His only concern was he might have to hold off till the next class sesssion because time was running out and he didn’t want to set himself up for failure.   So he also got in touch with some former colleagues he hadn’t talked to in years and three of them agreed to be references.  Then he began looking for jobs.

Two weeks later, I received this note:

I got a job offer yesterday.  After reading a study that said 90% of people would not consider hiring someone with a violent felony conviction, I was getting pretty discouraged, but then it dawned on me that if 90% don’t that still means 10% do…so logically then it is just a numbers game.  Assuming that the study was accurate, that means that submitting 100 applications will result in 10 people who are willing to give an ex-con a try.  I have to admit, that after 30+ “No” answers, it takes a certain amount of determination to believe that the “Yes” is still lurking out there…but it was.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go all the way to 100.

 It turned out the position for which he was hired hadn’t been advertised.  He’d simply seen a new business opening and gone to apply.   “The job was one that I had no direct experience with,” he said, ” but I decided to apply anyway because what is the worst they could do…tell me “no”?”

Obviously, things didn’t happen overnight for Thomas.  But what I like about this story is that even when he was asking for help, he was helping himself. He was  researching possible options before asking for suggestions, and he kept on doing his homework afterwards.  When truck driving school seemed like it might not work, he went to Plan B, contacting references and looking around for potential jobs.  He also went beyond employment ads, contacting companies directly and ultimately finding a job that hadn’t even been advertised yet. 

My hat is off to him, and to everyone else  out there who refuses to give up.  

 Is there something you can do to jumpstart your job search today?

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, education ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, job training, personal responsibility

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.

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Can you really erase your record?

I’ve alluded before to the fact that getting a conviction expunged doesn’t  guarantee you’ll come up clean in a background check.  Often, it takes no more than a Google search to find news of an arrest or sentencing, while some  government databases can still carry this  information well after an individual has gone to the trouble and expense to get his/her record sealed. 

Now some legislators in Ohio are trying to change that.  A bill introduced by Sen. Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland), would not only enable ex-offenders to get their records cleared after 5 years.  According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the new law would also:

1. Require individuals and private businesses to erase the historical record by destroying “records” they hold about the convictions of those whose cases are sealed.

2.  Require individuals, newspapers and other news media to delete stories from the Internet and their archives about the arrests and convictions of those who win expungement orders.  This, or face fines and/or damages from $250,000 to $1,000,000. 

Although the bill seems like a bit of a reach —  particularly in its attempt to get media organizations to delete the historical record — it does shed light on the  difficulties of starting over, even if you play by the rules.  My take:  People with criminal records who have had their records supposedly sealed, should not then have to have them used against them just because the information remains in the public record.

The question is whether a bill like this is the way to address it.  What do you think should be done?

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Ban the box update

As I noted in my last post, this week is devoted to checking on the status of legislation affecting  ex-offenders.

One of the more effective strategies — and one that seems to be  gaining steam —  is the  “Ban the Box” grassroots campaign.  The box, of course,  is that section of the employment application that asks about whether you have a criminal record.  The question can come in a variety of forms as  blogger James Walker notes in his very comprehensive post. Sometimes it’s even a series of questions, as I discovered when my son recently applied at our local grocery store for a job as a bag boy.  These are usually yes/no questions, typically followed by a space where you’re asked to explain any charges in further detail.

The problem is that once you check “Yes,” your application often goes no further.  One human resources professional recently told me  that in cases where someone answered yes in an online application at his former employer, the application was automatically deleted. 

Since 2003, some 30 cities states and counties have eliminated the box and the question from applications.  These include:

    Hawaii (1998), Minnesota (2009) and New Mexico, this year.  Just last month,  Connecticut passed a law removing the box from applications for public jobs.  Bills are also pending in Wisconsin and Nebraska.   Major cities that have banned the box for government jobs include San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul.   

The National Employment Law Project offers a comprehensive update by state and city.  The Safer Foundation also provides a detailed list of recent legislation. 

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Job interviews and ex-offenders: maybe it’s not the crime that cost you the job

In my last two class sessions, we’ve been talking about answering job interview questions.  Yes, that includes the $64,000 biggie:  Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

And yet, for all the emphasis put on being able to look an employer in the eye and honestly discuss your record or those huge gaps in your work history —  it’s often the simple and seemingly benign questions that can trip up an ex-offender. 

This came to light last week after a lively class  discussion about what to say when an employer opens an interview by saying:  “Tell me about yourself.” 

Most of my students felt this was an easy question. 

It’s not. In fact, if you don’t handle this one carefully you can end up stumbling right out of the starting gate.   Despite seeming open-ended, an employer isn’t asking for your life history here. Nor does he want  a long-winded dissertation on why this job  is your dream come true.  As one inmate wisely noted, the employer doesn’t just want to know what you’ve done in the past, but who you are and what you can do for them.   In Michelle Rafter’s  blog for SecondAct.com, Georgia Tech University professor Nathan Bennett  offers good advice when he says,  focus not on what you enjoy, but on what you bring to an organization that is uinque and hard for others to copy.

So how do you  do this?   The key is tailoring your skills and abilities to the needs of the employer, but in a way that doesn’t come off sounding like a canned sales pitch.  Sally Chopping, a Pittsburgh-based interview and public speaking coach, suggests breaking the question down into 3 parts

  1. Identify the 3 most important qualities for the job.
  2. Mention the most relevant last job you had and highlight one of your achievements.
  3. Say why you’d like to work for the particular company. 

If you put these together as she does, you end up with a response that encapsulates your unique strengths and abilities in a way that shows how they will benefit the company. 

This video, courtesy of CollegeGrad.com, (which is equally applicable to jobs that don’t require college degrees, by the way) also spells out a good approach to the “Tell me about yourself”  query:

How about you?   What have you said when an employer opens with this question?  What’s worked and what hasn’t?

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Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, employers hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, reentry, second chances, taking responsibility

More on background checks

For those wondering how far back employers can go in searching criminal records, I found a great source of info,  courtesy of Prison Talk.  It’s a link to Employment Screening Resources, one of the companies employers hire to do their background checks.  This page shows what’s available in the databases for each state.   As you can see, some states go back 7 to 10 years, some go back much further.  You can check out your own state and have a better idea of the information available on your charges.

On a related note,  the Wall Street Journal did another  piece on how increasing numbers of people are losing out on jobs because of poor credit reports.  The one bright spot in the story:  in the current economy so many people are affected by this that it’s drawn legislative attention.  Rep. Steve  Cohen (D-Tenn.) has introduced a bill in Congress that would make it illegal for employers to use credit reports as a reason for not hiring someone.   As I wrote here, the EEOC is also taking a closer look at whether the use of background checks in hiring can be discriminatory.   So while I wouldn’t expect this either credit or criminal screening to go away, I do think employers are going to have to be a lot more careful about how they use it.

Here’s what one employment attorney has to say.  At the same time, some employers seem to be getting even bolder.  A recent NYT editorial highlighted two cases the attorney general had brought recently – one against RadioShack for “denying applicants whose files had been sealed, set aside or deemed to be minor.”    The other was against a screening company ChoicePoint for creating a program that would automatically rejected applicants who disclosed criminal backgrounds.

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