How to Answer “Do You Have a Criminal Record?”

Learn how to craft an answer to this difficult interview question.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Interviewee wondering how to answer an interview question about their criminal record

Most of us have, at one point or another, made a mistake in our lives that we regret. And fortunately, we’re often not required to share these past mistakes with prospective employers when applying for jobs. But if you have a past criminal conviction, there is a good chance that you will be required to address your criminal record during the application process.

If you have a criminal record, this can make it more challenging to demonstrate to potential employers that you’ll be a trustworthy employee. However, this doesn't have to be the case. How you speak about your criminal history can sometimes say more about your character than the convictions themselves.

In this article, we’ll share how you can effectively discuss your criminal record in interviews. You’ll discover why hiring managers ask this question, top tips for crafting a response and some examples you can use to inspire your own answer to this interview question.

Why hiring managers ask this question

Since hiring managers cannot know for certain how a candidate will perform in a job, they often use a job applicant’s past behavior to predict future performance. And when a job applicant has a criminal record, this is often viewed as a red flag for employers. If a candidate has a history of not adhering to public laws, hiring managers may wonder if the candidate will also infringe on workplace policies.

However, while a criminal record could be a red flag when looking for a job, many hiring managers also believe in redemption and second chances. Some companies are even known to hire ex-offenders. So, while a criminal record does not make a person inherently unemployable, you’ll still want to assuage the hiring manager’s concerns when asked about your criminal record.

If you do have a criminal record, hiring managers will want to know what positive changes and growth you have made in your life. They will also want assurance that the behavior that led to the conviction won’t cause issues in the job. You’ll also want to give them insight into your work style, prospective career path and whether you would be a good fit in the work environment and company culture.

Depending on where the job is located, different laws may apply that stipulate at which stage in the application process a prospective employer can inquire about an job applicant’s criminal record. In the United States, many states, counties and local ordinances have “ban the box” laws that prohibit employers from requesting information about an applicant’s criminal record on the job application. These laws require that the candidate either be invited to an interview or be made a job offer before inquiring about the criminal record. So make sure to inform yourself in advance about the laws that are in effect in your local area.

Tips for crafting a response

Now that you've familiarized yourself with why hiring managers ask this interview question, let’s look at how you can best answer this question and avoid giving the wrong answer. Below are five tips you can use when preparing for a job interview with a criminal record.

1. Be honest

If you’re asked in an interview whether you have a criminal record, it’s imperative to be honest. After all, since most employers run background checks before hiring candidates, they are bound to find out sooner or later. While many employers will be able to look past a criminal background, lying on your résumé or in an interview is an absolute no-go.

If an employer finds out at a later time that an employee lied during the job interview, this is often grounds for termination. Therefore, if you want to keep the job that you worked so hard to get, it’s best to be honest throughout the entire application process — and during your time with the company.

2. Disclose appropriately

While you should be prepare to answer questions about your criminal history, this doesn’t mean that you need to divulge every detail about the criminal case. It’s important to be mindful about which information is necessary to share and what will support you in making a good impression during the job interview. Therefore, you’ll want to strike a balance between sharing too much and sharing too little when answering this question.

If you’re too vague in your response, this could end up backfiring as the interviewers may come to their own conclusions about your criminal history — which may be worse than the reality. Therefore, consider which details are important to disclose in order to ensure you are sharing an appropriate amount.

3. Take accountability

Employers favor candidates that possess a high degree of accountability. They want to hire employees that don’t make excuses or blame others but take responsibility for their behavior and performance. Therefore, if you’re asked in a job interview about your criminal record, it's important to take accountability for your past.

When answering this question, make sure to avoid making excuses or minimizing personal fault. Not taking accountability will most likely be viewed as a red flag for employers, as they may be concerned you would lack accountability in the job as well.

4. Highlight the positives

Although it may at first seem like a criminal record can only be a negative when job hunting, it is possible to make lemonade out of lemons. And there are sometimes silver linings that can come from your experience being in the criminal justice system.

Perhaps while you were serving time, you finished a bachelor’s degree, had an epiphany that you wanted to turn your life around, or were inspired to volunteer helping troubled youth. Since employers value candidates who are resilient and have a growth mindset, there is most likely a way you can frame your criminal past in a positive light.

5. Pay attention to body language

When it comes to making a good impression in an interview, how you say something can oftentimes be even more decisive than what you say. Therefore, when preparing your response, make sure to not neglect practicing your nonverbal communication.

If a potential employer discovers you have a criminal history, it may bring your trustworthiness into question. And since body language is hugely influential in developing trust, make sure to convey confidence, poise, authenticity and humility in your body language. Having good posture, not fidgeting, smiling, listening and making good eye contact are good starting points to ensure your body language is effective.

Example answers

Below are some example answers to the interview question “do you have a criminal record?” These can be used as inspiration for you to craft your own responses based on your unique situation and the job description.

IT job                                                                            

“Four years ago, I was convicted of a felony for possession of drugs, and I served a year in prison. This criminal conviction was a wake-up call that I needed to change my life, and I have since dedicated myself to being a law-abiding citizen and giving back to society. Since I was released, I’ve been volunteering my IT services to a local troubled youth center while working full time in food service. I am now seeking to make a job transition and turn my IT skills into a career.”

Manufacturing job

“A few years back, I was convicted of driving under the influence. But since the conviction, I have been committed to making better decisions in my life. Although I made this mistake, I think my extensive work history in manufacturing demonstrates that I’m a dedicated and responsible worker. In the letters of recommendations that I have provided, former colleagues and supervisors also attest to this.”

Delivery driver job

“Last year, I was convicted of assault after getting into a fight in a bar, and I served a three-month jail sentence. I understand how this conviction could be a concern. However, my driving record is clean, and this conviction will not influence my ability to do the job. Since my release, I have also changed my life around and am committed to growth. For example, I voluntarily attend a weekly anger management support group.”

Key takeaways

There are many employers that believe in second chances — and a criminal history is not a deal-breaker when it comes to finding meaningful employment. However, how you discuss your criminal history will be a decisive factor in whether you’ll be considered for the role.

Despite a criminal record, demonstrating accountability, remorse and the desire to make positive changes in your life will enable you to make a good impression on potential employers. Below are some tips to keep in mind so that you’re well prepared to answer interview questions about your criminal record:

  • Always be honest in your answer, as not being truthful could be grounds for termination.
  • Disclose the appropriate details to quell the hiring manager’s concerns without oversharing.
  • Take accountability for your criminal record and avoid making excuses or blaming others.
  • Highlight the positives by showing how you have grown from your past and made positive contributions.
  • Pay attention to your body language as how you say something is sometimes more important than what you say.

No one’s past needs to define their future. And if you have a criminal record, it is still possible to impress hiring managers during interviews. By applying the above tips, you can be sure to answer any interview questions about your criminal record in a way that helps you land that job offer — despite a troubled past.


Originally published 2 October 2014.