How to Respond to the Felony Question

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Be honest.  Be accurate.  Be reassuring.  Be positive.

If you have been convicted of a felony, you are likely embarrassed by this fact – and worried that people will not want to hire you because of it. You are wise to be concerned, but many employers will give you a second chance – depending on how you present yourself and your conviction. Also, it’s important that you think positively about yourself and your circumstances: You have served your time and have the same right to a job as anyone else.

On the Application

That being said, almost every application will ask whether you have been charged with or convicted of a felony. It might be tempting to lie and say “no,” but this is not a good idea. Most employers will run a background check prior to hiring you, and the only thing worse than having a felony is being caught lying about it. Even a felon-friendly employer is not likely to forgive the deception. Lying during the job application process is grounds for immediate termination.

Given that the best course is usually to respond to the question truthfully, you have a lot of decisions to make about how you respond. This will depend on what is on your rap sheet, what exactly the question asks, and the nature of your criminal record. Let’s look at each of these issues:

Know what is on your rap sheet. It is not uncommon for your rap sheet to contain incorrect information, whether it’s charges that you don’t know about or convictions that aren’t yours. Prospective employers will see your rap sheet! It’s important that you see it first – and clean up any problems. Ask your Free to Learn instructor for help in obtaining and cleaning up your rap sheet before you apply for any jobs. What you tell employers should match your cleaned up, accurate rap sheet.

Read the question carefully! Not all felony questions are the same. For example, some job applications simply ask for felony convictions in the past five years. If your conviction was seven years ago, you can simply say “no,” and move on. Read the question carefully and answer it precisely.

Some convictions are better than others. For many employers, the nature of the conviction matters a great deal. Many employers will forgive a single drug possession conviction, but balk at a string of theft convictions. Also, the farther back in time the conviction occurred, the better. If your conviction was ten years ago, that feels better to an employer than one from last year.

Given all of these issues, then, what should you say? Answer “yes” or “no” depending on the question. Most job applications will then give you an opportunity to explain. If your conviction was relatively minor and doesn’t call into question whether you are an honest person (a drug offense or a drunk driving offense, for example), then you can state what the conviction is, explain that it was a long time ago, state that you have made changes in your life since then that mean you’ll never commit the offense again, and ask the employer to give you a chance:

“Ten years ago, I was convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol. I served time in prison for this offense. Since my release, I have turned my life around. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you in more detail at an interview. Thank you.”

For more recent and more serious offenses, it’s better to be short and sweet:

“I would like the opportunity to explain this situation more fully to you at an interview.”

At the Interview

If you get an interview, congratulations! This is your chance to show the employer who you are and why you would be a good fit for the position. It’s also the time when you will have to give some sort of explanation for your felony conviction.

Take responsibility for your actions. Admit that you made some poor choices. Give the interviewer a brief explanation of your crime. If it was more than five years ago, mention that – the older the crime, the better. Be brief and provide only the necessary information – this is not the time to vent or complain. Do not make excuses or try to justify the crime.

Put a positive spin on your experience. No one wants to get enmeshed in the criminal justice system, but everyone who does learns something from the experience. Tell the employer what your experience taught you – for example, quickly gaining social skills, respecting authority, taking direction, tapping into creativity, setting goals, realizing how emotionally strong you are.

Stress that you’ve turned your life around. Since your conviction, you have probably made changes in your life to make sure you don’t ever go to prison again. Talk about these changes – for example, joining AA, attending support groups, seeking counseling, leaving an abusive husband, finding new law-abiding friends, reconnecting with a supportive family.

Focus on your skills and your abilities. Don’t get sidetracked by the felony question. Address it and move on. You want this job – and you want to convince the employer that you are the right person for it. Talk about what you can do. Talk about who you are.

Tax breaks and bonding. At the same time that you are explaining your felony conviction to the employer, point out to the employer that a federal tax break is available for companies that hire former felons, and there is also a federal bonding program.

“Seven years ago, I was convicted of possessing a controlled substance. I served my time and am now on parole. I took part in an addiction program and am now drug free. Since my conviction, I have earned my GED and have gotten my beauty license. I have reconnected with my family and am living with my parents. They are incredibly loving and supportive. My conviction was a mistake I made, but I have turned my life around. It won’t happen again.”

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