Don’t Let Criminal Offenses Derail Your Job Search
In an ideal world, the mistakes we make wouldn’t haunt us forever. Unfortunately, in the real world, moments of stupidity and youthful (or not so youthful) indiscretion can leave a permanent and harmful record, one that can make it hard to find a job with an employer who conducts background checks.
While you might not be able to erase an arrest or criminal charge, you can help ease its impact on a potential employer’s decision to hire you by being open, honest, and forthcoming about your past. Follow these general guidelines for handling issues about your past infractions:
If information comes up on a background check, there’s no sense in lying about what really happened. Be honest with your potential employer about the circumstances and assure them that nothing similar will happen in the future. Failing to do so could hurt you more than it helps you. Just remember to keep your version of events succinct and to take responsibility for your own actions.
Do your own background check.
The only thing worse than having to explain a criminal offense on your record is being blindsided by it. In some cases, you may not even realize when things wind up on your record (like ticketed offenses), so you might not expect those things to become issues when you’re looking for a job. If you have even the slightest feeling that your past might come back to haunt you, do a background check on yourself to see what comes up before applying for jobs.
Know the details.
If you have to explain why you have an offense on your record, make sure you know how to easily and clearly explain it to a potential employer. Know when it happened, why it happened, and circumstances that led to the situation. You also may want to obtain copies of any documents that relate to your offense, just in case you need them to back up what you’re saying.
Look into getting your records expunged.
Certain criminal offenses can sometimes be expunged from your record, especially if they shouldn’t appear there at all (for instance, in a case where you were accused but not convicted). It’s worth speaking to a lawyer to determine which offenses can be expunged and which you’ll have to live with.
Know the laws in your state.
Not every state has identical laws when it comes to background checks, and knowing the unique laws regarding them in your state can be a big help. Some states may limit the ability of your employer to check up on your past, and some even make it illegal to discriminate based on minor offenses. Additionally, if you are part of a minority group, you may be able to find help from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has been fighting against background checks for employment because they very often disproportionately hurt minority groups.
Of course, there are things you can do to help you moderate the impact of more specific kinds of charges, too. Here are some of common (and often minor) criminal charges that you may have to address with employer, as well as some tips on how to explain and minimize their impact.
Assault and Battery.
Assault sounds like a serious charge, and it can be, but it’s not always the result of unjustified violence. Historically, laws treated the threat of physical injury as “assault” and the completed act of physical contact or offensive touching as “battery,” but many states no longer differentiate between the two. A drunken bar fight could result in this kind of charge, and you don’t actually have to hurt anyone, just make someone feel like they might be hurt by you. Whether you made poor decisions under the influence or never laid a finger on anyone, you’ll need to explain to employers that you do not have a history of violence. Proving that you’ve taken anger management classes (likely required if you were convicted) and explaining the circumstances of your offense can help as well.
Bouncing a Check.
Bouncing a check can result in either civil or criminal penalties, though they usually do not become a criminal matter unless it appears that there has been an intent to defraud, and even then should only show up as a misdemeanor (provided it was under your state’s limit for felony check fraud). Having this kind of offense on your record could be a major knock against you with employers, as it implies that you aren’t trustworthy. Be honest about your wrongdoing and make sure to demonstrate that you’ve been trustworthy in the time since, either through work or volunteer opportunities. It’s important to keep in mind that bounced checks can also hurt your credit score, which could be another obstacle in your job search.
Supporting a cause you’re passionate about is great, but if you take it too far and act unlawfully, no matter how peaceful you are, you may find yourself arrested and charged with civil disobedience (often translated to a more specific misdemeanor charge like trespass, failure to disperse, or disorderly conduct). Depending on the employer, this kind of charge may not pose a big issue when getting hired. Keep in mind, however, that even though it may have been a non-violent, fairly innocuous offense, it’s still a crime, and you will need to explain the circumstances under which it occurred. Stress that the actions were non-violent and that you were simply supporting a cause that means a lot to you. Hopefully, the employer will see how that passion could translate into positive performance on the job.
Disturbing the Peace:
Disturbing the peace, also known as breach of the peace, is a criminal offense that occurs when a person engages in some form of disorderly conduct, like fighting or threatening to fight in public, or causing excessively loud noise by shouting, playing loud music, or even allowing a dog to bark for prolonged periods of time. This isn’t necessarily a violent, dangerous, or even particularly serious offense, but it can raise a potential employer’s concerns about your suitability for the position. You’ll need to be honest about what happened and why, and take responsibility for your role in the issue.
Fish and Game Violations.
Even hunters trying their best to comply with the law can get charged with a fish and wildlife crime. Hunting charges can not only lead to fines, but, depending on the offense, might even result in jail time, so they’re not to be taken lightly. What can make things confusing is that sometimes hunters are only issued a ticket, but that ticket is much more than a simple violation; it’s actually a criminal charge. This kind of criminal activity shouldn’t pose a problem with most employers unless you’re trying to work in the hunting industry or with wildlife. Still, it can be helpful to explain the circumstances under which the offense took place, especially if there was a misunderstanding (e.g., perhaps your license was expired, or you didn’t realize you needed a special license for certain types of game).
Illegal Possession of a Weapon.
In many states, laws regarding gun ownership and registration are extremely strict. Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) cards must be kept up-to-date. If they are not, serious criminal charges may result. If you illegally obtained a weapon, this kind of charge may be hard to explain to employers in a way that won’t scare them off, unless you’ve seen been serious about staying on the straight and narrow and can demonstrate that. However, if you forgot to renew your FOID card, moved out of state and forgot to reapply, or had a gun you owned used by someone without a FOID card, then you need to explain those circumstances to employers who may be understanding about the charge.
Simple Drug Possession.
Drug convictions never look good when you’re trying to find a job, but some may be less hurtful than others, especially if your state has somewhat lax regulations about drugs, especially marijuana. Explaining your situation to your employer requires knowing the laws of your state because some states don’t ban drugs outright, but set limits and rules on how they can be bought, sold, and used. Others have very strict rules that penalize even the smallest amounts of drugs. Either way, if you happen to exceed or breaks these rules, even by a little, you may be charged with a crime. No matter what the circumstances are, it is critical to stress to employers that you are no longer using these substances (unless you have a prescription or live in a state where they are legal). If necessary, submit to a drug test to further emphasize your intent to stay drug-free.
Public intoxication citations occur when an individual is drunk and is disturbing others in public setting, perhaps causing harm to either themselves, others, or property. This kind of charge usually does not make it to criminal court, but if it does, it can leave an lasting mark on your record. A history of reckless or dangerous behavior isn’t going to win employers over, so you’ll need to explain the circumstances as well as assure them that this isn’t a regular occurrence. Admit that you’ve made a mistake, tell them that you’ve learned from it, and don’t engage in this kind of behavior any longer.
Driving without a valid license isn’t a minor traffic violation; it can lead to criminal charges and serious penalties, and it will likely show up on your permanent record. There are, however, a number of circumstances when this kind of offense could happen without the intent to commit any kind of crime (e.g., moving to a new state or letting an unlicensed driver borrow your car). If this applies to you, make sure employers know that it was not your intent to break the law and that you’ve since made sure all of your licensing requirements are up-to-date. If you are trying to work in a job that requires you to drive or to operate company equipment, this kind of charge may carry more of a negative impact.
Vandalism is the destruction or defacement of someone else’s property without permission. It can include broken windows, graffiti, damage to vehicles, and even damage or destruction of a person’s website. There really isn’t an excuse for vandalizing anything, whether real or virtual, despite many young people thinking it’s a harmless prank or a way to creatively express oneself. When talking to potential employers about your infraction, let them know that you’ve paid for the damage and have taken responsibility for your actions. Experience in the intervening years that demonstrates your respect for other people’s property can also be an asset in this kind of discussion, as employers will naturally be worried about the threat you may pose to their equipment and office space .
While we might not condone criminal activity, small offenses shouldn’t ruin your life forever, keeping you from finding work and getting on with your life. You may not be able to erase the past, but you can use these tips to help you better learn from it and move on in the future.