How to Answer 'Do You Have a Criminal Record?'

Interviewing for a job you really need or want is always intimidating. Doing so when you have a criminal record can seem like a hurdle you'll never be able to cross. However, although it often is harder to find a job when you've got a criminal record, it's far from impossible – and how you answer the questions can make all the difference.

First things first: legal factors

Before you start interviewing, you need to understand any employment laws that may apply to you. They can vary quite a bit by country and even by locality. In the United States, for instance, some states permit employers to ask about convictions, but not arrests. Other states allow both questions, so it's important to do your homework. Find out things like:

  • What can a potential employer ask you?
  • Does it have to be relevant to the job?
  • Can you legally be fired if you answer untruthfully?
  • Are there any legal loopholes that allow you to avoid mentioning certain convictions? Does the conviction have to be relevant to the job, for instance? Is there a “statue of limitations” that says you don't have to mention convictions after a certain length of time has passed?

Knowing what an employer can ask, what you can conceal, and what you can't conceal is the best way to be prepared for this type of question. 

Validate your interviewer's concern

The worst thing you could do is act like it's no big deal. Instead, say something like, “I understand why you may have some concerns.”

Be truthful

Unless there is a legally valid reason for concealing a criminal history, tell the truth. Backgrounds checks are easy and relatively inexpensive, and lots of employers use them. It makes no sense to lie when the truth will come out anyway.

Own it

Nothing will turn a potential employer off faster than hearing a bunch of excuses, so talking about how the police were out to get you or your lawyer was incompetent will sink whatever chances you may have. Whatever mistakes you made, take responsibility:

  • “When I was younger, I made some very foolish decisions that I will always regret.”
  • “I made the mistake of getting involved with a crowd caught up in drugs and alcohol, and I had to pay the consequences for those choices.”
  • “I grew up in a rough neighborhood where everybody thought that, if you wanted something, the best way to get it was to take it. Much to my shame at this point in my life, I got caught up in that mindset.” 

Show how you've changed

Once you've owned your past, show how you've left it where it belongs – in the past.

  • “While I regret the incident, I learned some valuable lessons about the kind of life I don't want to lead.”
  • “I completed school/went to rehab/did community service, and I know I can be a valuable member of your team.”

A criminal record doesn't have to ruin your career chances. It may make your job search more challenging, but a lot of things in life are challenging. Your goal in an interview is to illustrate that you're a different person than you were at the time of your conviction. If you make excuses, or blame other people, it will just exacerbate your potential employer's concerns. The only way to prove that you've changed is to own up to it, be accountable, and explain what you've done to turn your life around.


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