Ask an Expert: Interview Tips for Job Seekers With a Criminal Record

criminal record background checkAn AOL reader asks, "How can you interview successfully if you have a criminal record?" AOL turned to Elisabeth H. Sanders-Park, an expert in tough career transitions and co-author of TheSix ReasonsYou'll Get the Job: What Employers Look For--Whether They Know It Or Not for some answers.

Expect the question and prepare your answer before the interview

There are lots of things the employer doesn't have the right to ask about you, but they can ask about criminal history. Before the interview, prepare a good, honest answer that eliminates or dramatically reduces the employer's concerns AND gives you a chance to prove your qualifications.

Welcome the Question

Let's face it! When these issues arise, the employer's concern is at the front of their mind and you've got some explaining to do. This can be an awkward spot in the interview for both of you. In that moment, lots of job seekers act defensive, resentful, or just try to avoid the issue. Their body language, eye contact, facial expressions and energy make the whole situation worse. Don't let this be you. Don't waste time getting angry or wishing it wouldn't come up, just be prepared. Start by welcoming the question. This sets a positive tone for the rest of your good answer.

Take Responsibility

Taking responsibility for your part in the mistake or problem shows employers you have some power to keep it from happening again, which reduces their risk in hiring you. Determine what you could have done differently to have stopped the problem from occurring. Briefly, explain what happened and why in 5 to 15 seconds without blaming others, denying your role, or dwelling on what you did wrong. If it's reasonable, attribute the situation to something you have already changed such as a wrong crowd, being young and stupid, or a bad decision you would not make today. Avoid sharing gory or distasteful details, bragging, or making light of it, and watch your language.

Watch Your Language!

There are words and phrases that employers simply don't expect to hear in an interview. If they are spoken, the employer can be so startled that they stop listening to the rest of your explanation. They're stuck at the scary word, and never hear how you have changed, where you're at today, and why you are great for the job. Think about the truth of your situation and find alternate ways to explain it. For example, 'burglary' could be stated 'went into a building I had no business being in and took some things that weren't mine', 'assault & battery' becomes 'harmed someone' or 'had a physical altercation', perhaps you 'took a car that wasn't mine', 'reacted and someone lost their life', 'started drinking too much; it got out of hand and even lead to some substance use'. You can refer to prison time as 'contact with the criminal justice system' or 'paying your debt to society', yourself as a 'resident' rather than an 'inmate', and a parole officer, re-entry counselor or recovery sponsor as a 'mentor'. These alternate terms designed not to deceive the employer, merely to tell the truth in a less startling way so they hear your entire good answer before determining if the gains outweigh the risks.

Use Father Time

Carefully choose how you refer to the past. Which sounds longer ago... "in 2004" or "almost 7 years ago"? For most adults "almost 7 years ago" sounds further back. To make the conviction seem further in the past, state the number of years ago it occurred. If you want to make something sound as recent as possible (a course you took, or article you wrote), use the year.

Share Your Moment of Clarity

Taking responsibility for your actions can reduce the employer's concern, but it's not enough to convince them you won't do it again. Simply saying you've changed or learned your lesson won't convince them either. You must let them see inside your heart and head. You must share your moment of clarity -- the specific instance when you realized you made a mistake, regretted your action, and determined to change. It must give the employer a clear reason to believe you wouldn't do it again. Bob, who was fired for embezzlement, said, "It was the horror and sadness in my son's eyes when he found out that broke my heart. I knew none of it had been worth it." The drama of your moment of clarity must match the issue, and include the specific lesson you learned, and your motivation for doing it differently in the future. As you decide how to express your moment of clarity, think about what the employer values. Does your explanation sound like you are only sorry you got caught and that you are finding it hard to get a job, or does it show that you regret the problems it has caused others, as well as yourself. Keep it brief, 5 to 10 seconds.

Paint a New Picture

For all the good it does, welcoming the question, taking responsibility and sharing your moment of clarity also digs you in to a bit of a hole. You have admitted to what happened. Now, it's time to bring the employer from the past to the present. Paint a picture of your life today. Share what you are doing or have done to ensure it will not recur. Perhaps you have changed your thinking, become a parent, finally grown up, have a new group of friends, a new faith, learned a new skill, or have a new vision for your life. Be sure not to raise additional concerns, i.e., if you mention that you are a parent also mention that you have a reliable child care plan. Take 15 to 20 seconds to help them see that where you are today is very different than your past. Every change you mention must be demonstrated in your actions and attitudes throughout the job search, and once you are hired.

Tell Them What They Gain

You have taken a negative situation and neutralized it. Don't end your answer without investing 10 to 30 seconds to refocus the employer on what they will gain if they give you a second chance. Remind them why they should hire you. What unique qualities, skills or attitudes make you worth the risk? Be sure the employer feels like they can follow up with clarifying questions. Consider the follow-up questions might an employer ask you, and prepare your responses.


Your comfort in delivering your answer can increase employers' confidence in hiring you. Practice your answer until it is a natural response to various questions that could be asked on the subject. Natural, is about 30 minutes beyond memorized. Practice not only your verbal delivery, but also keeping a positive mindset and comfortable body language as you speak – relaxed and steady eye contact, no fidgeting, positive energy in your voice tone, and open posture.

Stay Positive
Remember, everyone has some explaining to do. You have talent, passion, and experience worth paying for. There are many, many people with criminal backgrounds who are working, succeeding, leading in the world of work. Don't hold yourself back. Share what happened and what you offer the employer today, and leave the decision to the. Good luck!

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