How to Respond to the Felony Question

Important Things to Keep in Mind

When applying for a job, you may be asked about felony convictions.

  • Tell the truth. Most employers will run a background check and learn about your criminal record, whether you tell them or not.
  • Know what is in your criminal record. It is not uncommon for your criminal record to contain incorrect information, and prospective employers will probably see it. It’s important that you review it first and clean up any problems before you apply for a job.

    How to obtain and clean up your record.

  • Some convictions are better than others. Many employers will forgive a single drug possession conviction or a DUI, but not a string of theft convictions or assaults. Also, the farther back in time the conviction occurred, the better.

On the Application

  • Read the felony question carefully! Not all felony questions are the same. For example, some job applications simply ask for felony convictions in the past five years. If your conviction was seven years ago, you can simply say “no,” and move on.
  • Explain your conviction. If the application gives you space to explain your conviction, and if the conviction is far in the past, state what the conviction was and how long ago it happened, explain that you’ve turned your life around, and welcome an opportunity to discuss it in person.

Old conviction example: “Ten years ago, I was convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol. I served time in prison for this offense. Since my release, I have turned my life around. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you in more detail at an interview. Thank you.”

If your conviction is recent or more serious in nature, ask to explain the situation in person.

Recent or serious conviction example: “I would like the opportunity to explain this situation more fully to you at an interview.”

At the Interview

If you get an interview, congratulations! This is your chance to show the employer who you are and why you would be a good fit for the position. It’s also the time when you will have to explain your felony conviction.

  • Give a very brief explanation of your crime including only the necessary information and leaving out the personal details and drama. The older the crime the better, so mention if it was a long time ago.
  • Take responsibility for your actions. Admit that you made some poor choices. Give the interviewer a brief explanation of your crime. Do not make excuses or try to justify the crime.
  • Put a positive spin on your experience. No one wants to get enmeshed in the criminal justice system, but everyone who does learns something from the experience. Tell the employer what your experience taught you – for example, quickly gaining social skills, respecting authority, taking direction, tapping into creativity or setting goals.
  • Stress that you’ve turned your life around. Since your conviction, you have probably made changes in your life to make sure you don’t ever go to prison again. Talk about these changes — for example, joining AA, attending support groups, seeking counseling, leaving an abusive relationship, finding new law-abiding friends, reconnecting with a supportive family.
  • Example of felony explanation in an interview: “Seven years ago, I was convicted of possessing a controlled substance. I served my time and am now on parole. I took part in an addiction program and am now drug free. Since my conviction, I have earned my GED and have gotten my beauty license. I have reconnected with my family and am living with my parents. They are incredibly loving and supportive. My conviction was a mistake I made, but I have turned my life around. It won’t happen again.”

  • Employer benefits of hiring an ex-offender. The Federal government has two programs to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders. The employers themselves may not know about these incentives, so you might have to explain it to them, as an additional benefit of hiring you.
  • Focus on your skills and your abilities. Don’t get sidetracked by the felony question. Address it and move on to talking about why you are the right person for the job.