Discussion: May 4, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader asks a tough one:

I worked in HR for four years. Now I am a convicted felon who is trying hard to get back into the workforce. The charge was grand theft. I have paid my debt to society and now I find that companies do not want to give me a chance. I am qualified for administrative work and I am more than willing to start at the bottom. Do you have any tips or advice on what a person with a criminal record can do to at least get my foot in the door? (I was convicted in 2008, so I do understand that my charge is still new. But I refuse to believe that because of one bad choice, I am doomed to unemployment forever.) Thanks.

The economy isn’t bad enough. Try laying a conviction on top of it!

All suggestions for this reader are welcome, but I’d like to especially encourage managers to think about this one… What could this reader do to convince you to take a chance?

If you’re not a manager and you were facing this situation (come on, you may be a saint, but pretend…) what would you do to show a manager it’s worth giving you an honest shot at a new start?


  1. I’m not currently a manager, but I used to manage a convenience store a few years ago (I know, not administrative, but I’m writing this to offer encouragement and show that there are some people who would be willing to give you a chance). I had the authority to fire people, but store policy kept me from hiring people unless I jumped through company hoops. There were a couple of non-performing people who I wanted to fire at the store, but I couldn’t hire adequate replacements because of company policies. That’s a big reason I’m no longer a store manager.

    I had one applicant come in with a fairly recent drug conviction. She showed aptitude and a great attitude when I interviewed her. It seemed to me that she really wanted to rebuild her life. OK, so I probably would have had to watch her closely, certainly for a few months to a year, to make sure she really had cleaned up her act and wasn’t going to steal from the store or anything. I was willing to do that. The company wasn’t. That’s really a shame, as she might have been a really good employee.

    You may have to steer toward smaller companies that have more flexibility on hiring, and you may have to jump through some of your own hoops to prove yourself. There was a saying we used when I was in the military, “one oh, s@!% can wipe out ten atta-boy’s.” Well, sounds like you’ve had your one oh, s@!% and now you have to work on the atta-boy’s. Demonstrate to potential employers that you’re not a bad person. Volunteer for something if you can spare the time. Work for a charity. And get off the job hunting treadmill that Nick so abhors, go for the personal contacts.

    I hope it turns around for you.

  2. My suggestion for a strategy would be to go for temp agencies or non-profits that may be in a position of needing people. The pay will be less than stellar but the idea here is to build up a track record before trying to get back to right where I was if I was in that position. Another thought would be to see if there were government programs to assist those with records gain employment. This may suck in having to go hunting for lots of other things but it may be useful to see what is around you as you never know until you start asking.

    While you may think that position that requires X years of experience is right up your alley, that conviction may knock you down a peg or two and thus finding the balance isn’t easy. Another thought would be to try to leverage personal contacts. Maybe someone knows someone that really wants someone for something.

  3. Let me recommend the book, No One Is Unemployable, by Angel and Harney.

    In it you will find many helpful ideas for getting on track, and for presenting yourself to potential employers.

    See this web site:


  4. My suggestion is to focus on establishing personal contacts through volunteer work and participating in networking groups. In particular, look for a charity or non-profit that you feel passionate about and see how you can assist in their mission. Then get out and help them in any way you can, and use every opportunity to showcase your dedication and positive attitude. Once people see that you deliver on commitments and are reliable, you’ll build up their sense of trust in you. That will get you noticed and these contacts can help expand your network and may provide you with personal references who will be able to give prospective employers positive feedback. Good luck!

  5. The people on this forum continue to astound me – excellent suggestions from people who see the upside.

  6. I agree with the above comments and would like to add one more resource. Every state has a workforce investment act job center. A part of the job center is funded for folks in your situation. Felons can get fidelity bonding from the job centers to help “assure” employers. It isn’t the only answer but it helps especially if the conviction involved theft.

  7. As a hiring manager, might I make the following suggestions?

    First, (this might seem obvious, but you would be surprised) focus on positions which do not involve “sensitivities” related to your conviction. For instance, if the conviction was related to identity theft, avoid HR. Bank fraud, don’t apply for accounting positions. ;)

    Second, find a hiring manager to make an agreement with. I know, this is hard. But you will be asking any employee you apply to to trust you not only with the job (fairly easy) but with their career (much more personally sensitive).

    Nobody wants to be the person who brought trouble to the company (and that is what average employee will be primarily concerned with. It’s natural.). So the admin at the front desk scanning your application may not be in your corner. Who might be? The hiring manager that needs things done right.

    Find that hiring manager and use the brass tacks approach: Here’s the past, here’s what I can do and this is my committment. Let them know what you are doing to make your life right, and make an agreement with them to let them know if anything goes sideways. Then overcompensate to build trust. Five minutes late? Call and let them know. Coming in on Saturday to tie up loose ends? Let them know ahead of time. At some point they will say “enough!” and you will know you have your baseline of credibility established.

    Most important, if “issues” resurface, talk to them immediately. The hardest part of being a manager is when your employees let you down. It’s a lot more palatable (and potentially manageable) if they hear it from the employee first.

    I can tell you from first-hand experience that having a criminal issue arise with a trusted employee is potentially heart-wrenching for the manager. Understand that any good manager/employee relationship is based upon trust and act as though you are looking out for both sides of the relationship.

    Good luck with the rest of your life. Every day is a new start.

  8. As a head of recruiting, I have had this discussion many times with both hiring managers and my recruiting team. Believe it or not, I fall on the side of giving someone a chance.

    S Kendall gave some excellent advice. You’re going to have to focus on positions that are unrelated to your conviction. You are the one who has to prove once again that you are trustworthy and the best place to start is a position where there is no perceived temptation for you.

    I also like the idea of going through temp agencies (especially in this economic enviroment) because it reduces the risk for the employer. Quite frankly, if you’re a temp and you mess up again, it is easier to release you than if you’re a full time employee.

    I would also suggest having a 30 second speech ready that shows you have accepted responsibility for your actions, you are ready to move on, and that you recognize you will have to rebuile trust with others and are prepared to invest the time and effort in doing so.

    It is going to be tough and take some time. In a good economy, your situation is a challenge. In this economy, you are competing against a lot of people who do not have your baggage. I like the idea of volunteer work so that people can get to know you again. Try to do things that keep you upbeat and on the right track. It is going to take some time, but you will find the right fit.

  9. Unfortunately, many staffing agencies have blanket no felons policies. See this article http://www.workforce.com/archive/feature/27/03/17/index.php from workforce.com.

    Some of Nick’s advice to job hoppers is apropos here as well: ‘Search for a job strictly through personal referrals and face-to-face contacts which enable you to make your case before your butt is kicked into the can.’ Because the hiring process for posted jobs is really more of an elimination process (1 job + 500 apps = 499 times more eliminating than hiring), employers are looking for easy eliminators. What’s easier than a felony conviction? Sad but true.

    A good place to start looking for help is http://www.reentry.gov. Also, be careful out there. As with job search in general, a number of scams are directed at ex-offenders who are doubly desperate. Good luck!


  10. I work with trades people and construction workers for the last 15 years in HR. I find quite often that trades people who have had convictions, but turned a new leaf, are my best employees or sub-contractors.
    So, there are employers like me out there who take all the facts into account, and work out some sort of probationary agreement, to establish trust.
    As in Nick’s books the main thing I look for, is can the employee do the work profitably? Get that concept firmly in someone’s mind before they start nick picking your resume and history. Then when the conviction comes up later in the recruitment cycle, you are positioned more as a possible assest than liablity. But really do everything possible to move the question of criminal record, to later on in any interview situation, without seeming evasive. And that can be a tall order.

    Personal advice: Just get working at anything, and put aside or raise some money to start your business, then you are in control!

  11. I have nothing to add to this as advice but I am moved by the number of people who give such great advice to someone who really needs it instead of saying “tough luck”. I admire the person who asked the question, too. I hope he/she can be lucky enough to find such wonderful recruiters like there are here on this blog. Good luck.

  12. Nick,

    I’d try community service groups that deal with social rehabilitation. They can site you as a success story making your background an asset rather than a handicap.

  13. I have a dear friend who began dating a convicted felon who had gotten a prior girlfriend to cosign a loan for $50,000 and then stole the money. My friend said he was reformed and he had paid his debt to society. “He did the crime, and he did the time.” Two years to be exact.

    I asked her, “Did he really repay his debts? Did his prior girlfriend get her money back? Did the taxpayers get repaid the cost of catching, convicting, and incarcerating him? That could run $200,000 easy… where did he get that kind of money? How about restitution for pain and suffering – and for betraying a trust? What else did he do but not get caught doing?”

    She said, “He is so nice; he deserves a break. Nobody wants to hire him.” I asked if she had cosigned any loans for this guy, and she got very angry, informing me that was none of my business. Needless to say, she is no longer with this person, and apparently my question is still none of my business.

    If he asked for my advice on finding a job, I would suggest he start by finding his victim(s), and signing an agreement to have his future wages garnered to pay them until they are made whole. Then he could do the same thing for the taxpayers.

    If he were indeed working to repay his debt in a meaningful way, I bet doors would open. Hell, the victims and the government would have an incentive to help. It might be a hard life for a decade or so, but I bet he would find work from plenty of people if they knew the fruits of his labor were going to pay off an injustice, and not to him.

    Suffering the consequences of getting caught is not the same as repaying a debt by any stretch.

    People who know that don’t want to hire people who don’t.

  14. @Nada: Hoo-wee! You are tough! I had not looked at it this way. What does “paying one’s debt” really mean?

  15. Repaying a debt means making everyone involved at least as well off as if you had not done whatever you did.

    Simple, really.

    If I borrow $100,000 from you, and I do not pay it back, then I did not pay my debt. If I declare bankruptcy, I may not be breaking the law even if I never pay it back, but I cannot claim I paid my debt until I do.

    How can stealing $100,000 from you instead of borrowing it with your consent possibly relieve me of the fact that I owe you $100,000.

    If I have a medical problem, and I spend a year in the hospital recuperating, and I can’t pay the $120,000 hospital bill, then I have not paid my debt. The hospital might write it off, but that does not mean I have paid the debt.

    If the fact base is the same, except that the institution is those with ethical problems instead of medical ones, the math is the same.

    But, you did not ask for me to bitch-slap your reader. You asked for advice on how he can find work.

    And so I am.

    If he makes the promotion of this philosophy his life’s work, he will become rich by the only measures that really matter – the kinds that will outlast his time on earth – and that will enrich lives now and long after he is gone. People with jobs are no happier than people with careers, but people with callings are the happiest of all, job or no job.

    For inspiration, he might read about the life of Mark Twain who lost his fortune, and most of his wife’s inheritance. Then, as Wikipedia says, “Twain embarked on an around-the-world lecture tour in 1894[32] to pay off his creditors in full, although he was no longer under any legal obligation to do so.” We owe much to Twain’s lost fortune, and a commitment to pay debts he did not need to pay because it motivated the creation of a body of work so vast nobody has come close to cataloging it all.

    For additional inspiration, I recommend “Revenge, a Story of Hope” by Laura Blumenfeld, a young woman who set about getting even with a terrorist who shot (but did not kill) her father.

    I doubt I would cosign a loan with your reader. And hiring him puts me at much more risk than cosigning a loan; at least with a loan, my maximum loss is capped.

    But, I would certainly consider buying a book. Or paying to hear a speech. Or donate to a cause.

    I have a friend who was convicted of a felony and has since built a very successful life.

    I’ll see if I can get him to join this conversation.

  16. @Nada: High standards are refreshing. Most of the world doesn’t know what they are. Nor do they know the rewards that come from them. Reality is a bitch-slap no matter when it hits you or from what direction ;-) Sometimes it even feels good. I’m glad you’ve joined the conversation.

  17. I wrote to my friend who spent time in jail. He is now an author, and does a tremendous amount of good work. I met him years ago, and he has been a great help speaking to friends I am introducing to my own brand of “networking.”

    I wondered how he was and asked him to review this blog, and tell me if I was being too harsh. Here is his response:

    I don’t think you were harsh.

    Most of the guys I met in prison were in some way or another manipulative, delusional, crybabies, and/or narcissistic. Paying your debt to society means to me an objective fact: you ain’t in jail anymore. That’s it.

    Everyone’s different, but from the moment I had to confront my own delusional behavior, I have been quietly, every day, paying it back by trying (with occasional success) to live an ethical, thoughtful life, coloring between the lines, and committing random acts of kindness. My philosophy is, “the other fellow (or woman) first.” That includes four-way stop signs.

    I wonder if I would feel this way if I had not experienced the complete tear-down of my psyche. From revelations that came out of therapy, to revelations that came out of books (“Man’s Search for Meaning”), to revelations that came out of the minds of people I respect, I am always striving to learn how I can balance the harm I did with the good I can do. In that sense, my calamity was a great gift, although I don’t recommend it.

    My mantra: any day I’m not in jail is a good one. It comes to mind almost every day, but especially when the weather’s gloomy.

    I’m fine. It’s been a struggle last couple of years, but I’ve had the privilege to work with some extraordinary people on some uplifting projects. Now I must pack for a train trip to Chicago where I am meeting a client who is giving me a tour of the black ghetto he grew up in, and was shot in when he was 16, the bullet still lodged in his liver 25 years later. Now he’s an ex-FBI agent, lawyer, congressional fraud investigator, and about to be deployed as a judge advocate to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s preparing for a political career.

    My very best wishes. Keep up the good works and thanks for inspiring me. I have told hundreds of people your (to me) signature line “Networking is not about what you can do for me, but about what I can do for you.”

    • How is someone supposed to repay a “debt” (of $), if they can’t get a job, any job? Seems pretty oxymoron to me. The good way to be is to give people a chance if they deserve it. Who are you to say every person does not deserve it? Until you have spent some time in jail or prison, you will never understand if the “debt” has been repaid, nor if it isn’t your “debt” is it any of your business.

  18. I am the reader that asked the original question.

    First, let me say that I am extremely humbled by most of the comments here. I am actually surprised that there was only one rude person. Thank you for your kindness.

    I entered a re-entry program and they helped me to obtain a seasonal position with the City. I have since obtained full time employment with the City and am doing very well. I also entered therapy and am still going. I mentor people who were once in my situation.

    And yes, Nada, I repaid my victims, in case you were wondering.

    Nick, thank you for “listening”. And everyone, thanks again for your suggestions.


  19. KP –

    Thanks for the feedback and for what you’re doing now.

    I mentioned the book No One is Unemployable. Did you happen to read it? Was it helpful?

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