The Challenges of Job Searching with a Criminal Record

Small Group Study / Produced by TOW Project

This lesson was piloted in April 2017 by Southern California Teen Challenge, in a program for men rehabilitating from drug addiction and prison. To see all lessons, go to the Men's Prison Curriculum Table of Contents.

Discussion Question: What scares you most about looking for a job?

Looking for work when you have a criminal record has special challenges. Many employers are afraid to hire someone with a record. For Christians, this is extra frustrating. On one hand, you are a new creation. Any sins from your past were wiped away by Jesus’ sacrifice (2 Corinthians 5:17). At the same time, you have a paper trail that follows you around. People are making hiring decisions based on this past information. How can you ensure you get a fair hearing? Should you be upfront about your history? Or hide it as best you can? This is difficult moral question.

Jesus realized that difficult questions come up all the time. In fact, he warned his followers that going into the world as Christians would be difficult.

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
(Matthew 10:16)

When you wonder what to say about your criminal record, you may feel a tension between being wise and being innocent. People who think a lot about ethics have suggested a way to think through tough moral questions like this one. You can remember the method using three Cs: Commandments, Consequences, and Character.

Commandments: What commandments apply to this situation?

Consequences: What are the consequences of each potential course of action?

Character: How does each action reflect on the type of person I want to be?

Let’s use the three Cs to work through this question: What do you say to a potential employer about your criminal past? And when do you say it?

First think of any commandments that relate to this situation. Many Bible verses stress telling the truth, such as Leviticus 19:11 which says “You shall not lie to one another.” However, when truth telling conflicts with doing something else that is right, the commandment doesn’t apply. Many Bible heroes do the right thing by misleading someone else, like the Hebrew midwives who lie to save baby boys (Exodus 1:15-21), or Moses who tells Pharaoh the Hebrews are only going into the desert for a brief festival (Exodus 5:1), or David who lies several times to preserve his own life (1 Samuel 21:1-3, 12-15). To sum up, you’re commanded to tell the truth, but with exceptions to do good for yourself and others.

Next think of the consequences of any action. If you reveal on a resume that you have a criminal record, you might not get an interview. However, if the interviewer asks you about past convictions and you don’t fess up, you’ll face bigger problems when a background check comes in.

Lastly, think about how your actions might reflect on your character. What type of person do you want to be? How do you want others to see you?

Discussion Question: How do you think commandments, consequences, and character apply to talking about your criminal record on your resume or in an interview?

Job search experts give these tips for being both wise and innocent when writing resumes and interviewing for jobs.

  • Don’t reference your criminal background on a resume. The purpose of a resume is to get you a job interview. Criminal history is best revealed in an interview, when you can put a positive spin on what you’ve learned from your experience.
  • If a job application asks about a conviction record, you can’t lie. But you can choose to explain yourself later. In the section that asks you for details on past convictions, you can write “will explain in interview.”
  • If you did any work or education in prison, you can put this on your resume. Use the name of the facility as the employer, and write any key skills you learned. Or, if your experiences in prison are unrelated to the job you’re applying for, you can leave them off your resume.
  • When you explain your criminal record in an interview, be brief and focus on the positive: what you learned from your experience and how it will make you a good fit for the job.
  • You can use a 3-part model for explaining your past, one that shows creation, fall, and redemption. Example: The real me is a good man and a hard worker. I made some mistakes, but I paid for them and I learned from that experience. Right now I’m the best person for this job because nobody will work harder than me.

Discussion Question: What did you learn from prison or addiction? How are you different today from five years ago?

Discussion Question: What did you learn from your past experience that makes you the best person for a job?

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