Criminal Record Holding You Back? Learn How to Overcome These Obstacles

If your criminal record doesn’t qualify for expungement or sealing, don't despair. You can take several steps to make it more likely that you’ll be hired.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated June 16, 2021

If your criminal record doesn't qualify for expungement or sealing, don't despair. You can take several steps to make it more likely that you'll be hired.

Be Prepared to Tell the Truth

Employers and landlords are increasingly asking about applicants' criminal histories. Screening often involves a background check or, at least, a Google search. Assume that your record will become known, and prepare now to handle it.

  • Don't lie. While an employer may be willing to hire a former offender who can show they're the right candidate for a job, that employer will almost certainly refuse to give the job to a liar.
  • Be prepared to explain. Answer questions about your criminal history honestly but without going into detail. Focus on the amount of time that has passed and the progress you have made. It's also wise to prepare a brief written statement that explains your history. Writing out a simple paragraph can prepare you to talk to a potential employer about your experience. You may also be able to include your written statement when filling out a job application. If you are working with a job assistance program (discussed below), you can get help with these kinds of preparations—including practicing by answering mock interview questions.

Ask for Letters of Recommendation

A letter of recommendation from a responsible person can be quite helpful. Think about those who can speak to the strength of your character and abilities. Former employers, landlords, and prominent members of your community can be good sources for letters of recommendation. Ask your letter writers to be as specific as possible regarding your character and strengths. For example, it is more encouraging to read, "For the past year, John Harris has been a punctual and reliable employee, whom I placed in charge of our accounts receivable," than a vague statement, such as, "John Harris is honest and punctual."

If you have been employed since your conviction by an employer who knew about your background but hired you nonetheless, don't be afraid to ask that employer to address the issue directly. In fact, such recommendations can be quite powerful: "Although I was aware of Mr. Harris's criminal record when he applied, I was impressed at the interview with the way he has turned his life around. Upon hiring him, I was not disappointed." Balancing your criminal record with positive information will increase your chances of success.

Get Help From Supportive Employment Agencies

Many federal, state, and local agencies are geared specifically toward helping former offenders get jobs. Some of these agencies offer job-training programs. These agencies also have established relationships with employers who are willing to hire qualified graduates. Take advantage of the resources that are available to you.

Seek a Pardon

It's very rare, but some people who have records that don't qualify for expungement are able to obtain a pardon for the offense. If you are pardoned, your criminal record may not be completely erased, but it will be updated to reflect that the crime was officially forgiven. For more information, see Is a pardon the same as expungement?

Know Your Legal Rights

As an ex-offender, you have legal rights when seeking a job or housing. While some states generally allow employers and landlords to use past convictions as a reason to turn you away, other states are not so lenient. Your state may prohibit consideration of older convictions or of those that are not reasonably related to the job you are seeking.

Careful employers will use your conviction information to deny you a job only if the particulars of the offense make you unsuited to the job you're seeking. For example, if you were recently convicted of theft and you're applying for a job as a bank teller, the bank would most likely be justified in turning you down. In a housing context, a recent burglary conviction would similarly support a landlord's decision to turn an applicant away. In a nutshell, the employer or landlord should be able to show that a valid business necessity supports the decision to deny the job or housing.

In 2012, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") issued guidelines that, while they don't have the force of law, counsel employers to stick to the test explained just above when they encounter applicants with criminal histories. Employers are urged to avoid blanket policies that exclude applicants with any criminal record and, instead, to determine which offenses are relevant to the jobs being filled (and consider rejecting only those applicants who have committed those crimes). They're advised to give mere arrest records little weight. You can read the guidance on the EEOC website, Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In addition, many states have rules about what employers may legally ask you. For example, California employers (with a few exceptions) can't ask you about an arrest record. On the other hand, they can ask you about previous convictions, if the questions are business-related and aren't otherwise discriminatory.

For more information about the legal rights and limits that may apply to your job or housing search, connect with an ex-offender job-assistance program near you or contact a qualified employment law attorney who knows the laws in your state.

Make Your Criminal Record an Asset

Yes, you read that right. Federal law gives employers powerful incentives to hire people with criminal histories. Examples of benefits that a business might receive if they hire you include:

  • tax credits for hiring ex-offenders
  • reimbursement for some types of job training, and
  • grants for providing services to former prisoners.

For inspiration, take a look at Ranker's impressive list of companies that hire felons and former convicts.

Finally, don't be easily discouraged. Many employers who regularly hire ex-offenders say that they are often ideal employees—loyal, productive, and grateful. Companies like these may want to give you a second chance.

Get Professional Help

Talk to an Expungement attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you