How to Get a Job If You Have a Criminal Record

Updated on 7/6/2023

You don’t need me to tell you that dealing with the criminal justice system is no picnic (to put it mildly).

When going through the process of being convicted of a crime and sentenced to probation, jail, or prison, most people maintain hope by looking forward to the day when they can put the whole situation behind them. Unfortunately, even after their sentence has expired, many people discover that their criminal record makes life rather difficult in a number of ways.

Perhaps most importantly, individuals with criminal records tend to have a tough time finding gainful employment after being released by the criminal justice system. According to data collected by The Sentencing Project, over 60% of formerly-imprisoned individuals remain unemployed a year after being released from jail or prison. Those who do find jobs, sadly, end up earning an average 40% less than those who have no record.

While this sounds pretty disheartening, it doesn’t have to be the case. The truth is, while a criminal record can certainly hinder your ability to find a decent job, it’s not a complete barrier to employment.

In this article, we’ll provide some tips and strategies to help those with criminal records find a job that enables them to continue moving forward in life. We’ll also discuss some potential career pathways you may want to consider, as well.

Tips for Job-Seekers With a Criminal Record

Landing a new job always requires a strategic approach – regardless of whether you have a criminal record or not.

If you do have a record, though, you’ll need to be extra strategic (and extra careful) in your pursuit of a new job or career.

Let’s start at the very beginning of your search – before you even start looking for a job in the first place.

Know What You Can’t Do

First things first, you probably know there are certain positions you simply won’t be considered for with a record – no matter how competent and qualified you are.

From a legal standpoint, employers can’t decide not to hire you solely because of your criminal record.

(Note: The nature of your crime, and how it relates to a specific position, can come into play. But potential employers can’t simply say they’re not hiring you “because you have a record.“)

However, you can legally be barred from becoming licensed in certain fields due to your criminal past – which essentially bars you from positions in which said licensure is needed. For example, individuals with violent felonies typically can’t become licensed as educators; since they can’t earn a license, they wouldn’t be considered for an open teaching position.

So, before you even begin considering a potential field of employment, check to see if a license or certification is necessary for the position you’re considering and take note of any restrictions or barriers to licensure that apply to your situation. You could always contact your state’s licensure board for more information, as well.

Know Your Rights

As we mentioned earlier, those with criminal records do still have rights when it comes to finding gainful employment.

It’s essential, then, that you know what these rights are with regard to disclosing your criminal past before you begin applying for jobs.

According to the report from The Sentencing Project we referred to earlier, 87% of employers include questions relating to criminal history on applications and during the interview process. However, there are certain times in which you aren’t legally obligated to divulge such sensitive information about your past.

Firstly, if you’ve been arrested – but not convicted of a crime – you aren’t legally required to disclose this information. In fact, it’s illegal for employers to ask questions regarding your arrest history throughout the hiring process.

Secondly, if your case is currently ongoing – meaning you haven’t yet been convicted of anything – you don’t have to share this information, either. Of course, depending on the outcome of the case, you may or may not be required to report this information to your employer if they choose to bring you on board.

If you have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime, but your potential employer specifically asks about felony convictions, you don’t need to say anything about your record. If their questions include language such as “a felony or a misdemeanor of a violent or sexual nature,” then you may have to divulge your history.

Lastly, if your record has been sealed or expunged, you don’t need to bring up your criminal history. If the case was sealed, potential employers may be able to see that you have a record – but you don’t need to explain what the charges were or anything like that. If your record was expunged, you essentially have no “official” criminal history to divulge, at all.

Of course, as we said earlier, your potential employers will almost certainly run a background check on you (regardless of your answers to their line of questioning up front). However, they’ll need your consent in order to do so. While failure to provide this consent will likely disqualify you from the position, it’s still your right to decline the request if you so choose.

Now, the case may be that you do have to admit your criminal history to a prospective employer. While this can certainly be a nerve-racking experience, the way you handle the situation can make or break your potential to be hired.

Your best best is to follow these guidelines:

  • Be honest. Explain what you were convicted for and when it took place. Don’t try to shrug it off – your employer will find out about it at some point.
  • Be remorseful. Be truthful in showing regret, as well; if you truly are remorseful, you won’t need to do any “acting,” here.
  • Be succinct. There’s no reason to go into detail about what happened, and you definitely don’t want to try to rationalize your actions, either. Just answer the question and move on.
  • Prove that you’ve moved on in life – or, at least, are in the process of doing so. You want to make clear that you plan on fully dedicating yourself to the job if your potential employer decides to move forward in the process.

Speaking of moving on, let’s discuss how to actually make this happen.

Rebuild Your Reputation

Now that we have the legal logistics out of the way, let’s talk about what you can do to begin pursuing gainful employment once your sentence has ended.

At this point, you’ll have a few goals you’ll want to accomplish.

For one, you want to close your employment gap as quickly as you possibly can. Even if you were imprisoned for only a few months, your resume will show a clear gap in time from the moment you lost your last job to the current moment. You don’t want this gap to be any longer than it already is.

Second, you want to immediately begin learning as much as you can about the field or industry you’re looking to pursue. As we talked about in a recent article on our blog, you can definitely begin working on this during the time you spend incarcerated. But you also want to maintain a steady reading and learning habit after you’ve been released, as well.

Going along with this last point, you want to go “all in” with your newly-chosen field. By this, we mean you’ll need to truly dedicate yourself to becoming an expert in whichever industry you choose. The simple truth is that most fields are highly competitive as it is; with a criminal record working against you, you’ll absolutely need to outshine your competition as much as you possibly can.

Now, as for how to go about making all this happen…

With regard to your employment gap, as we mentioned above, you want to close it as soon as possible. This, unfortunately, may mean taking less-than-ideal jobs for low pay, or working odd hours of the day. But, remember: it’s a temporary solution that will ultimately benefit you in the long run.

Outside of finding employment, you also might consider going back to school, attending workshops, or finding other “official” educational opportunities you can document on your resume. Not only will such opportunities help you grow professionally and personally, but, by documenting your educational journey, you’ll prove to your future potential employers that you truly have moved on from the mistakes of your past.

Getting Assistance

As we’ve said, finding employment after being convicted of a crime isn’t exactly easy.

But you also don’t need to go it alone, either. Whether you’re in need of assistance while looking for a job, or need legal advice or assistance regarding your job search, there are a number of foundations that can help.

For help finding employment, you might consider contacting non-profit organizations such as the National Transitional Jobs Network, or America Works. While not specifically focused on helping individuals with criminal records (i.e., these foundations provide assistance to all chronically unemployed individuals), they’ll certainly be able to point you in the right direction in your search for employment.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you need legal advice or assistance regarding your employment potential, you might want to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU’s team of attorneys is always willing to help those who feel they’re being discriminated against reach their desired outcome. The ACLU may also be able to help you seal or expunge your record, or at least earn a certificate of good conduct – increasing your chances of finding employment in the future.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, this article has helped prepare you for what to expect with regard to finding a job after your sentence has ended. Again, it may be an uphill battle – but with the right attitude, you’ll come out on the other side having grown both professionally and personally.

Now, while we talked about the fact that you’ll likely be disqualified from working in a number of positions, there are definitely a ton of jobs out there that you’ll still be eligible for moving forward. In the next few weeks, we’ll discuss some of the possible jobs and careers that you might want to consider pursuing in the future.