I got in trouble with the law and I spent six years in jail.  I wasn’t sure a good company would hire an ex-convict but when I got out I got a good job. I’ve had a few of them, but I kept the main job for four years. I recently moved back to my home state. I’ve always been honest about my past so I used the same approach, but since I have been here I have been shot down because of this.

I have had plenty of interviews that went well until the subject of the drug charge came up. I have been proud of the fact that I have turned that part of my life around. I have some college, but no degree, just a certificate that I received while I was incarcerated. I sure could use some real advice. Please help if you can. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

hire an ex-convictYou need only one good employer to give you a chance. Sorry if this sounds corny, but that company is a shining light you must search out. You’ve already chosen (wisely) to not hide your past. There’s a shining light out there.

As long as you are clean and have been out of trouble all this time, here’s what I suggest. First, you need references and recommendations. Talk to people you’ve worked with who will vouch for you, especially those who’ve known you as an ex-convict. Let them know that over the next year they may get several calls from employers who need to know you’re a good worker and a good risk.

Hire an ex-convict who is now a valued worker

Decide in advance how you want to phrase your request. Brief is best.

How to Say It
“I just need you to tell them the truth about me as a worker, so they will know me as more than an ex-convict. It will mean more to me than I can say.”

Let them know the problem you are encountering and ask for their advice. Provide these references before you go to an interview so the employer will know that people you have worked for respect you.

You’re wise to be up front

Second, I think you’re doing the right thing about your conviction. Let the employer know up front about your background.

How to Say It
“I made a big mistake a long time ago. For six years I’ve been building my reputation and now I’m very proud of it. Here are my references.”

Third, complete your college degree, even if it takes a few years. Do it part-time if you have to. Apply for grants and scholarships, but avoid loans. Community colleges are perfect for this approach. This will further enhance your reputation, your credibility, and your confidence — in addition to educating you.

Invest in yourself

I believe that before you ask someone to take a chance on an ex-convict, it can help to show you are investing in yourself. Even if a degree is not required for jobs you want, the mere fact that you are working on a degree will impress some employers. It’s more proof that you are living for the future. In a few years you will look back. Will you chastise yourself because during that time you could have earned a degree, but didn’t? Get started now.

Don’t ask for a job. Give a commitment

If you sense there’s going to be a problem, understand that human nature is what it is. People will worry about taking a risk. So make it easy for them. Take the first step and give them something they will probably never ask you for. I can’t guarantee this will work, but it’s my best advice:

How to Say It
“If you have any concerns, I’d like to help you put them aside. If you hire me and you have any problem with my performance or you’re just not happy, I welcome you to fire me, no questions asked. No hard feelings. I won’t complain. But you won’t fire me, because foremost in my mind is one thing: I want you to be very glad you hired me. That’s the commitment I’ll make to you. Keep me a week, two weeks, a month. For as long as you’re happy. Ask my references: they’ll tell you how committed I am to my work.”

Some might tell you not to take this kind of chance. But I believe in removing obstacles to help people make good choices. It’s up to you to help an employer remove the obstacles to hiring you so they can experience what a great worker you are. But this is your choice: You must do what you think is best for you.

My highest compliments to you for turning your life around. Do not let employers who reject you get you down. You will encounter many. The only ones that count are the ones that say yes — and they are always worth pursuing. I wish you the best.

The Library of Congress publishes an excellent guide to re-employment for ex-convicts. I recommend it.

Here on Ask The Headhunter, you will find some realistic encouragement from other readers in the comments section of Grand theft HR. I especially recommend the suggestions posted by “S Kendall.”

Employers: Hire with purpose

I’d like to close with a suggestion to employers. You may say your goal is to hire with purpose. You want to hire people who “think out of the box.” You want to hire people who can demonstrate an ability to change and grow. Yet your HR department likely hires people who closely fit your “qualifications list” and who sit on the fat hump of the performance curve.

Take a good look at older workers; people with handicaps who can do the job; reformed ex-convicts; former substance abusers who have been clean for years. These are people living with a new purpose. What better examples of people who can change, who overcome adversity, and who can demonstrate the ability to perform?

I’m not suggesting you take a foolish risk. You can make a sound deal to protect yourself and your new hire. Hire with purpose. Think out of the box yourself. Hiring someone who has overcome a personal problem may net you a good worker who has the confidence to help you overcome problems your company faces.

Did you ever work with or hire an ex-convict? What was your experience? What advice would you give this person?

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  1. Employers presented with applicants with a troubled history should also consider that those applicants are potentially more committed to employers who give them a go. It’s really a win-win.

  2. It would depend on what he did and how long ago. I wouldn’t hire an embezzler as my accountant for example.
    I hired one once, brought him in through a temp agency, we were using a lot temps/contactors at the time. He turned to be a very dependable and capable employee.
    I worked with one at another job, I wasn’t involved in hiring. He was also a good employee and nice guy. He got the job because he knew people at the company and they were willing to give him a break. Also the offence involved a personal dispute, not something likely to come up on the job.

  3. As an agency recruiter I worked with a couple of guys who had differing brushes with the law. And as Nick said the very best way a job hunter can deal with it, is
    total transparncy. Don’t BS, don’t lie including by omission. From the get-go it earns respect.

    My 1st experience was recruiting a network support engineer when I recruited for an agency. His bonafides
    looked spot on so I moved him foreward. Our SOP was to initiate background checks. Back 10 years if applicable, or so I was told. Which means jobs were contingent on outcome of a backgrounder. That contigency paved the way to agency aggressiveness. We didn’t wait for the feedback if it was a hot lead.

    I submitted him, the client liked him & then the results came in. He’d done time on drug trafficing when he was
    very young. It seems the 3rd party background checker we used, didn’t stop at 10 years, They went back to the beginning of time per their SOP.

    He was crushed. He didn’t lie, he responded truthfully as asked, Within the 10 year timeframe. No issues.

    I went back to the client (HR), explained the situation.
    They checked with the hiring manager & he had no problem with it. So the guy was hired.

    I became a bit better at my job, & from that point on assumed there was no limit on the boundaries of a back ground check regardless of what the vendor said. And added a useful question to my interviews that a colleague always asked. “Tell me what’s not on your resume”.

    The 2nd experience was actually harder. I worked with a
    job hunter who lost his job, when the small privately owned company he worked for went belly up. Because his boss/owner ran afoul of the Feds for playing loose with Federal regs or some such. Crossed swords with the FBI, got busted.

    His difficulty was fighting doubt . In the above instance
    my candidate’s history, result, and turnaround was crystal clear when it’s laid out. In this case, he was
    investigated, found clear, didn’t get busted etc. But he
    found he ran into the perception “where there’s smoke
    there’s fire”. “You worked for the guy, how could you not
    know?” “You HAD to know”. He hit brick walls all over the place even though the lead FBI agent who was responsible for the case was a reference. One who’d attest, this guy is clean.

    His eventual solution was to start his own business. I’m
    pretty sure had he persisted, he’d have landed, but he
    got weary of being a job hunter with that additional
    burden and found another way

    I’ll add that in the 1st instance, we didn’t use the words
    convict, ex-con, ex-convict. While factual, they beg for
    a negative reaction. I think we said he was incarcerated & paid his dues. Same thing but sounds better.

    • Don, I think I read somewhere that a lot of people who get out of prison start their own businesses because they can’t get hired. I believe landscaping was mentioned as a business that was often chosen.

      I also seem to remember hearing, years ago when I worked for a large household name staffing company as a leased employee, that they wouldn’t place anyone who’d been convicted of a felony. I don’t know if that’s still their policy.

  4. Nick, thank you so much for addressing this reader’s question, and for your practical, encouraging advice. As someone who started out her career working with former and current gang members and convicts, I think you — and S Kendall — are on the right track.

    There’s always a bigger eco-system to questions like this, so I’d like to add two ideas for your readers to consider:
    (1) Legislation matters, and evens the playing field. Support “ban the box” legislation in your state and city to reduce the stigma of a prior conviction and the bias it introduces into the hiring process. Here in California it’s been law for 5 years.
    (2) Seriously engaging with ex-cons as viable job candidates is a concrete, meaningful way you can put your money where your mouth is when it comes to dismantling racism. People of color and those experiencing poverty are disproportionately incarcerated, and for lower level offenses. Taking a calculated risk on someone who was very likely disadvantaged by our inequitable systems is a way to serve justice and help our nation live up to our stated values.

    • @Susana: Thanks for adding those two ideas. There’s a solid population of job candidates out there that are being overlooked. Ex-cons (sorry, I don’t like euphemisms like RIF’d and in transition, either!) are people who “paid their debt to society,” but that’s usually not considered. I’d rather hire an ex-con who can show me good reason to take a chance than a crook who’s never been busted. Only one has paid their debt.

      Thanks for bringing this perspective.

  5. Nick, your advice advice about the commitment speech is spot on, AND there absolutely is NO risk in it if the ex-con is in a “right-to-work” state with no union. Under those conditions, he’s literally only stating the obvious, and not risking anything that isn’t already in the law!

    It’s just genius marketing!

    • @Autistic: Heh-heh. I figured somebody would pick that up. Not surprised it was you!

  6. Ban the box is silly, most employers do background checks so they find out anyway. Then you have the problem of your not being straight with them. Best to be upfront like Nick says.
    We should look at occupational licensing, besides being largely unnecessary, many licenses are not available to ex cons, taking thousands of potential jobs away.

    • Ban the box and ban the background check? I wonder if they do that in countries with “absolute right to privacy” in their national constitutions.

      Maybe it should be a requirement that if you are an organization that administers an occupational license then you cannot discriminate against ex-cons. Either the ex-cons will get a fair shake, or there will be a thinning of the herd on bogus occupational licenses.

      I used to know a gentleman who was a stationary engineer/boiler operator at a local prison. Woefully understaffed with no real employee pool, he recruited inmates to help, get trained (which he largely handled), and get licensed. He also had to convince the warden that during lockdown the person working the boiler should really stay with the boiler, and calling into the main guard station with the name and numbers of who was with the boiler was sufficient.

      A lot of his “staff” were long-timers, but it was amazing how when they got out with a supervisory or management certification, a union card, and several thousand hours of experience at all hours just how easy it was to get “past the box” on an interview.

  7. @L.T.: That’s a great story!