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Job Hunting When You Have a Criminal Past

Job Hunting When You Have a Criminal Past

Give me your name, birth date and an Internet connection, and in five minutes I'll know if you've been arrested, convicted or imprisoned in Florida. So will any employer who knows about the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's computer database and is willing to spend $15 for a criminal background check.

There's not much left to personal privacy these days, and if there's something criminal in your past that you'd like to hide from a potential employer, don't get your hopes up too high. While there's no national database employers can check for felony convictions, plenty of states make residents' criminal background information available. What's more, an employer can check federal court records online using the PACER system to see if you've been involved in civil or criminal court cases.

Crime can even affect your employment when you're the victim. For instance, some states allow employers to dismiss domestic violence victims who are at-will employees, if they're thought to create a risk for coworkers.

They Need to Know

Who can blame employers for wanting to know if they're about to hire a convicted embezzler as their next CFO? A company that doesn't do background checks may be liable if it hires someone who commits a violent act, steals from a business partner or sexually harasses coworkers.

If you have personal contact with customers, cash or commodities, it's likely you'll run across a background check as part of preemployment screening or even after you're hired. Some companies do criminal checks during annual reviews, and if something turns up, you're terminated.

What Can They Check?

Most states have laws about what's fair game when checking criminal histories. A state may allow employers to look back only five years, or to consider felonies but not misdemeanors. Some states also seal juvenile records.

In most cases, the crime must be related to the job for your history to be used against you. In other words, will you be placed in a job where you would be tempted to commit the same crime? Will a company hire a convicted embezzler as an accountant or to answer calls in the customer service center?

Many states also bar employers from considering arrests rather than convictions. Some states, though, say it's OK to ask about a crime for which you've been arrested but not yet tried if trust is important in your field (such as real estate, where you have access to people's homes).

Should You Disclose an Arrest or Conviction?

If you were arrested for underage drinking in another state and never convicted, chances are the employer will not find record of it. But if you were sent to a state prison for embezzlement and want to work as an auditor, that's a different story.

You can call your state's Department of Labor and ask about local preemployment screening laws. You'll also probably be informed in writing before any criminal background check. So if a criminal past is going to ruin your chances of landing a job, you can always bow out at that point.

Another option is to hire an investigator to check your background first. For $30 to $50, someone like Patrick Wilkins, president of Professional Investigative Consultants in Abilene, Texas, will comb through public records in areas where you've lived. For a higher fee, agency employees will knock on your former neighbors' doors to chat about you. Investigators are listed in your local phone book.

In some states, you have the right to see everything the human resources department has in your personnel file, including the results of criminal background checks. That includes any files former employers have, by the way.

Mitigating Factors

Some employers will consider mitigating factors. There's a difference between a single instance of car theft 25 years ago when you were a kid, and a dozen convictions for car theft. What you've done since your conviction and the rehabilitation you've completed may also come into play.

If you're unsure about what an employer will check, ask. The more you know, the better you can prepare yourself with a suitable explanation.

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