Find a Job if You Have a Criminal Background


I’ve been in prison for four years and have six months to go before I’m released. I’m already starting to worry about finding a job when I get out. How can I get back to work when even people with clean records and a great résumé are having trouble finding employment? – Wes from Nashville, TN


You’re not alone in your situation. More than 700,000 people were released from prison in 2010, many of whom are attempting to turn their lives around and get back into the workforce.  While people with criminal backgrounds can face a harder-than-average time finding a job, there are several things you can do to give yourself an advantage.

  • Get Started Now You don’t have to wait until you’re released from prison to begin preparing for your next job. Take advantage of vocational rehabilitation, education or work programs available in your facility. If you have an opportunity to work on your GED, that’s a step in the right direction. Not only will you gain skills that increase your chance of finding a job, you’ll also show future employers your commitment to bettering yourself. Plus, the connections you make could earn you the referral or recommendation that convinces an employer needs to give you a chance.
  • Understand Your Rights Familiarize yourself with your state’s laws about what employers can and cannot ask on a job application or in an interview. Some states, for example, prohibit employers from asking questions about arrests not leading to conviction. Others only allow employers to inquire about criminal convictions which occurred during a certain timeframe (e.g. the past 10 years). Select your state from the drop-down on this site and scroll to the employment section to find out about specific laws in your state.
  • Make a Good First Impression If you have the opportunity to attend a job fair or interview with an employer, be as professional in your appearance as possible, including wearing conservative clean clothing, and a fresh haircut and shave. Goodwill and other thrift stores offer very affordable shopping locations for job search and work clothing.
  • Be Honest about Your Background If an employer asks you a question that you are legally required to answer, be straightforward and use the details listed on your criminal record to answer the question. Avoid giving lengthy explanations, which may sound like excuses to an employer. Take responsibility for what happened and then use the opportunity to explain what you learned and showcase the positive changes you’ve made since that time.
  • Focus on Your Positive Attributes Don’t let your criminal background become the focus of the conversation – be sure to talk about the positive qualities and skills that you can bring to the organization. Employers want to hire the best person for the job, and if you can prove your abilities, they may be willing to overlook your criminal record.
  • Network Yourself to Your Next Job You’ve no doubt heard that networking is important when looking for a job, and it can be crucial to finding employment with a criminal background. If you make a good first impression with an employer you meet face-to-face, he or she may be willing to give you a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have if they only saw your application or résumé.

Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to tackle this all on your own. At Goodwill, we believe that everyone deserves a second chance. Many local agencies offer services to men, women and youth who have served time and are trying to get their lives back on track.

Visit our page for people with criminal backgrounds to read more about our services and hear the success stories of people we’ve served, then speak to an employment specialist for help getting started:

contact the Goodwill in your community