On a daily basis, former criminal offenders are given bad advice that is costing them job opportunities. That advice goes something like this:
When you get to the criminal history question on the employment application, answer it with “will discuss.” Or, just skip it – many employers won’t even notice.
While that sounds like a clever way to artfully dodge the question, it isn’t.
Here’s what these well-meaning employment coaches and friends (most of whom have never been an employer) don’t get: Answering “will discuss” to a legally posed question on the employment application (or other document later in the hiring process), will likely result in the applicant’s elimination from consideration.
Will discuss? Oh, no we won’t.
Look, I’m an HR guy consulting with HR professionals and business owners every day who also owns a background investigations firm. I have also counseled countless former offenders on looking for meaningful work with a criminal history. I’ve seen this scenario play out from all angles.
First of all, like it or not, the employer gets to set the terms of engagement. Job applicants don’t get to rewrite the employment application or change the application process. Employers have neither the time nor desire to negotiate process with each applicant. If an applicant demonstrates resistance to the employer’s process, the employer’s response will often be to simply move to the next candidate.
If there is one thing most employers don’t need, it is another noncompliant employee.
Also, it is human nature to assume the worst (murder, sex offenses, etc.) when an applicant is evasive. Employers don’t normally see “will discuss” and think, “Oh, he must have been caught jaywalking.” Someone with a relatively minor or older criminal history is actually hurting their chances at getting the job by taking this approach.
The advice I always give job seekers is to answer the question that is posed. If the employer only asks about felonies in the last seven years (a limitation I don’t recommend), the applicant shouldn’t volunteer the misdemeanor offense or the ten-year old felony on the application.
In the response, the job seeker should provide as much detail as possible. I recommend confirming the jurisdiction, dates, exact offense description, and sentencing details in advance. Simply calling the court will often get that info. By providing a straightforward and complete answer, the applicant will seem much more credible than if they skip the question or provide a non-answer like “will discuss.”
If the employer’s question didn’t cover the applicant’s offense situation and they could honestly answer “no” to the inquiry, I recommend that the applicant proactively disclose their criminal record.
At the end of the interview, the applicant might say something along these lines:
I appreciate your time today. I think this would be a great place to work and I’m sure that I will bring value as an employee. Although you haven’t asked about it, there is one thing I’d like to discuss with you so that there are no misunderstandings later…
The applicant can then briefly explain the offense and circumstances without making any excuses or laying blame on anyone else. Then, and this is the most important part, they should explain what they learned from that circumstance and what they have done in the intervening time to demonstrate that the prior bad behavior is not reflective of who they are today.
Why do this? First, the applicant has nothing to lose. If the employer does a background check, it is likely that the information will come out anyway. Why wouldn’t a job seeker prefer to initiate and participate in the conversation rather than have it revealed by a background check and examined outside of their presence?
Additionally, employers hate surprises. Even if they haven’t asked, they
want need to know and it is HR’s job – not the job seeker’s – to determine whether the information is relevant. If the applicant doesn’t bring it up and the background check reveals a criminal history – even one that isn’t directly related to the job – the employer is going to question the applicant’s integrity. “If this person becomes an employee, am I going to have to play 20 questions to make sure I know everything I need to know?”
I should add that this approach should also be taken by applicants with potentially negative employment references.
I recognize that there are state-law issues, possible Title VII considerations, and other concerns an employer may have. Most of those are covered in our recorded webinars. I also recognize that there are some knucklehead hiring managers who will completely disregard anyone with any criminal history – though they are rarer than Ban the Box proponents seem to believe.
So, what do you think? Let me know below!