When Your Background is Holding You Back


The economy is improving in almost every industry, and employers are finding that the talent pool is getting tight. That’s good news for a sector of the workforce that struggles to connect with work no matter what the economy is doing: those with criminal backgrounds.

It’s a growing problem here in Jacksonville, as it is for many cities. Employers as a whole are wary of hiring convicted felons. A 2010 study (based on 2008 data) found that at least 80 percent of employers would hire “former welfare recipients, workers with little recent work experience or lengthy unemployment, and other stigmatizing characteristics” but only 40 percent would consider hiring a convicted felon. In 2008, the latest year for which complete data are available, about 1 in 17 working-age adult men was a former prisoner and about 1 in 8 was an ex-felon. (Not all felons serve prison time.)

Unemployment among former felons (90 percent of whom are male) is a serious issue, not just for the individuals, but for the families and children affected by their inability to find work and provide support. A 2015 survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 76 percent of former inmates said finding work after being released was “difficult” or “nearly impossible.” Nearly two thirds of the respondents were unemployed or underemployed five years after being released from prison.

If your background is holding you (or someone you care for) back, here are some ways you can improve your odds of finding work.

  • You’ll have to try twice as hard to get half a chance. Your record is a mark against you, so you’ll have to balance your odds by being the very best candidate you can be. Your demeanor, your appearance, your preparation – they all have to be top notch. If you seem too casual, unprepared, or sloppy, you probably won’t get a chance to prove you can do the job. People will want to feel confident that you’ve put mistakes behind you, so you’ll need to make a strong first impression.
  • Apply in person, not online. Despite the fact that companies are beginning to Ban the Box, most online applications will ask about felony convictions. That fact, along with the number of other applicants with whom you’re competing, makes it unlikely you’ll get a call for an interview. You’re much better off making personal connections with companies, where you have a chance of meeting a hiring manager face to face and showing how motivated and sincere you are about working.
  • Apply to small companies. Larger companies with well-established HR policies will not be willing – or able – to make exceptions. Although the tide is changing, with EEOC guidelines saying the conviction must relate to the job duties. For instance a fraud conviction could be cause not to hire someone who would be exposed to customers’ personal or financial information. But a small, privately-held company may have fewer policies in place and more flexibility. I’ve met company owners who have said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” They remember how many mistakes they made in their younger years, and some consider themselves lucky not to have been arrested. Many believe in looking at the individual first, and his record second.
  • Consider self-employment. You may need to find a way to supplement your income or create your own job. Landscaping, construction, and other outdoor labor-intensive industries have always been open to hiring hard workers who consistently show up, regardless of their past history. Those industries might be a place to build skills and relationships that allow you to go out on your own to start a business. Skilled craftsmen will always be in demand, so your shot at a second chance may be one you build yourself.

Once you have that second chance, don’t waste it by taking it for granted.  When you do land a job, it’s important to stay for at least a year or two to build your experience and your reputation for being reliable. The good news is that after you’ve built up a few years of productive work experience, your background is likely to fade into the background.  You’ll find it becomes less important than what you can do for the company right now.


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