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I Just Work Here

Balancing a criminal record and a resume

A felony conviction is a tough obstacle in the job search, but it's not insurmountable.

Rex Huppke

I Just Work Here

December 25, 2011

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My New Year's resolution is to go from being simply "America's most beloved workplace-advice columnist" to "World's most beloved workplace-advice columnist."

And I want to lose weight and expand on my incredible capacity for humility.

I hope you all have a wonderful, work-free New Year's celebration.

On to your questions:

Q: My son is 22 years old and will be graduating from college in a year with a degree in accounting and finance. When he was 20, he was arrested at school and convicted of a class 3 felony for possession of marijuana. Our fear is that he will not be considered for jobs because this is on his record. What do you recommend he do as far as his resume is concerned or to improve his chances of getting an interview?

A: Employers don't take kindly to those who must check "yes" next to the "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" box. That's a shame on many levels.

It can drastically limit the opportunities available to people who have paid their debts to society. In some cases, the inability to find a job because of a criminal record can drive people back to committing crimes, a key aspect of the nation's ridiculously high recidivism rate.

But while a felony certainly complicates a job search, it isn't an impossible hurdle to overcome.

I spoke with Constantine Bitsas, director of client services at Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based group that works with people with criminal records and helps them find employment.

He said one of the keys in finding employment when you carry a felony conviction is to be unfailingly honest. When asked whether you've been convicted of a felony, don't try to deny it and hope the employer doesn't run a background check. That will likely come back to bite you.

"If the question does come up, we do advise people to answer honestly," Bitsas said. "Don't misrepresent yourself, but try to explain that it was a one-time offense. Take responsibility. Say, 'I understand what I did was a mistake, and I do regret that.' Take ownership, but try to communicate that you learned something from it."

If you're not asked about any convictions, Bitsas said, there's no reason to bring it up. If nobody asks, you do nothing wrong by not mentioning it, but if they ask, be straight.

Of course, many job applications ask the question but don't allow any room for explanation, and that will often result in an applicant not getting an in-person interview.

There's not much you can do about that. It just takes persistence in the job search, and you need to make it a priority to get face-to-face time with the employer so you have the opportunity to state your case.

It is possible to have criminal records expunged, but Bitsas said that is a lengthy process that involves getting clemency from the governor of your state.

"Chances are it will get denied," he said. "Many times people have to apply several times to get that."

Bitsas also suggests, once you get an interview or can explain the conviction in writing, highlighting the parts of your life that demonstrate you're a responsible person: grades in school, degrees, volunteer work. Those details will further demonstrate that the conviction was an aberration.

"If you can show that you're a person with good judgment and this was just a one-time mistake, and everything else backs that up, that really is critical," Bitsas said.

Q: I hope to be offered a job soon. The problem is the week training would start I am supposed to go to Mexico with my family, maybe one of the last ones we will have as our kids are getting older. I have a second interview before the job is formally offered. Should I be honest with them and maybe lose the job offer? I am torn between making an excuse up and being honest and missing the vacation.

A: At the end of the second interview, if it's 100 percent clear you're going to be offered the job, be straight with them. Tell them you have this vacation planned, say there's no way you're going to let the vacation get in the way of securing the job, but ask if there's any way you can make it work so you don't have to cancel the vacation.

Again, stress that the job offer takes absolute priority and that you're very excited about getting rolling in the new position. But bring it up nicely and see whether they can offer any way to work around the situation.

Experts I've talked to point out that in this job market you don't want to risk losing a good opportunity. But, they say, it's not unreasonable to ask an honest, straightforward question and see whether an employer is willing or able to accommodate your needs.

If anything, I imagine they'd respect you being upfront about things.

Now, if at the second interview you still don't know for sure whether you're getting an offer, I wouldn't bring the vacation up. Because at that point, why bother? If they haven't made you an offer, and you bring it up, it could factor into their hiring decision.

I would encourage everyone out there, whether you're job seeking or already working, to never lie or make up any kind of excuse, medical or otherwise. That's just asking for trouble, and with jobs hard to come by, it's not worth the risk of having something blow up in your face.

The thought of missing out on a vacation stinks, but if you're looking at a potentially good job offer, the job has to take priority. And I say that as someone who puts huge value on spending time with my family.

Once you have the job, you'll get vacation time and can make the most of it then.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.