Job Applications with a Felony: Everything You Need to Know

Amy Culver |
Amy is our Lead Copywriter at Snagajob, where she loves to use her word nerd powers to help workers and employers connect. Her first hourly job was as a cashier at Chick-fil-a.

Finding a job is tough when you have an arrest record or prior conviction. We know you're frustrated about trying to get your life straight and facing so many obstacles. While we can't tell you what job to apply for or who can hire you, we want to share the most important thing you can do as you begin your job search: tell the truth.

You probably dread seeing the "Have you been convicted...." question on every job application you've filled out. It's tempting to lie, but the probability that you will get caught is extremely high. Studies show that nearly 80 percent of employers will do some sort of background check (including criminal history). Some may do a background check before you're hired, and some will run the check after you've been offered the job. No matter when they do it, if you lie on your application and the employer finds out, they can and will fire you immediately. So be honest, and keep these five things in mind.

1. Read the question carefully

Make sure you give the employer exactly what they're asking you for. Is the application asking you to list any previous arrests? Or just felonies and misdemeanors? Does it ask you for specific details about the offense? Don't leave out important details - but don't write down the parking ticket you got in 1993 unless the employer asks for it.

2. Know your record

If you're asked to explain your criminal history, you'll need to know exactly what your violations were. If your only violations are misdemeanors, you can typically obtain a copy of your record from your local police. If your violations were felonies, you'll need to contact the state police. If you aren't sure, start local and they'll let you know.

3. Be specific

If an employer asks what your convictions were, use the information on the record that you obtained from the police to answer the question. Be as brief as possible and be sure to offer to explain more completely in an interview. The application is not the place to plead your innocence.

4. List the good stuff too

Be sure to list all positive, relevant work experience you've acquired either before or after your conviction. If you worked or received training while incarcerated, you may want to list this information in your work experience.

5. Know what you're signing

Almost every paper job application will ask you to sign and date it. The actual language on your application will be something like: "I certify that all of the statements on this application form made by me are true, complete and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief, and are made in good faith. I understand that any misrepresentation of information shall be sufficient cause for rejecting my application, withdrawing of any offer of employment, or terminating my employment."

Signing your application is a binding agreement between you and your potential employer, and by agreeing you are promising you haven't lied. The last sentence literally means that they can throw out your application, take away any offer to hire you, and if you're already hired, they can fire you. It's hefty stuff, and the best thing to do is tell the truth, no matter what.

One last note: Stay positive! It's hard not to take it personally when you don't get a job, but you need to understand that many employers simply can't hire employees who have criminal backgrounds. Typically this has something to do with potential liability (the fact that they could be sued) if there is a repeat offense. If you have a felony, you may also be barred from jobs in government, healthcare or childcare (to name a few examples).

So you may have to knock on far more doors to get a job offer, but in the end it will be worth it. You will get a fresh start and the opportunity to prove that you've moved past your conviction. And keeping a positive attitude and telling the truth is the only way to get there.