We all know the struggle of looking for a new job. We create a phenomenal resume that highlights all the knowledge we’ve gained, all of our best skills and abilities, all of our accomplishments and the people we know who will back us up on them. We hit the internet confidently searching for the postings that we’re certain were made for us. We find a few that catch our eye. We click for more details, certain we meet all of the criteria they’re looking for and then some. And then we see it:
“Current Police Security and Child Intervention Record Checks with satisfactory results”
Or, worded in an even more anxiety-provoking way:
“Clear Criminal Record Check with Vulnerable Sector search and Intervention Record Check”
This doesn’t bother you? Oh, you don’t have anything on your record? Phew. What a relief. Chances are you’ll apply, get an interview, and blow them away with all that you can contribute to their organization. Congrats! Now get out of my face because I kind of want to throw something at you.
I also have a post-secondary degree, valuable experience in different fields, a great work ethic, desire to learn, and a pretty likeable personality to boot (“toot toot” she says as she pulls on her imaginary horn). But you see, I also have a criminal record. Most of the time I forget about it, it hasn’t stopped me from doing great things and it certainly hasn’t stopped me from being the best I can be at whatever I choose to do. It does however cause me to pause when I’m applying for jobs because even though I know I have the potential to be a valuable asset in an organization, employers sometimes struggle to look past the criminal record and see the person standing before them.
I’ve made it through numerous interviews (with flying colours I might add) and then, at the very end where they’ve basically told me I’ve got the job, they follow up with “of course, we’ll just need you to provide us with a criminal record and vulnerable sector check but I’m sure that’s no issue” (as they wave their hand at me and make the face that says ‘obviously because you seem like such a nice, competent, law-abiding citizen who surely doesn’t make mistakes’).
“Well, actually I do have a record…”
Pause again as I watch them try and figure out how to respond to this piece of information that they were clearly not prepared for.
“We really appreciate your honesty. We have a few more interviews to conduct over the next day or two and then we’ll be calling to let you know our decision. It’s been SOOOOO nice to meet you. Thank you for meeting with us!” (Awkward hand shake).
And then I’m ghosted. I never hear from them again and see the job posting again two weeks later. It’s like the job version of a Tinder date gone wrong. RUDE.
Now, my record (which I will not get into) consists of one charge from years ago. I was not incarcerated, I wasn’t even put on probation. I made a mistake, I paid a fine, and now I have less than 20 words typed onto a fancy piece of paper. All of the positive things I have written on paper signed by other important people don’t matter as much as those 20 words. SIDENOTE: If I want a copy of these 20 words outlining my own mistake, I also get to pay the local authorities to give it to me complete with their autograph and everything – isn’t that nice of them?
Individuals who make a mistake and pay the consequences – through fines, probation, incarceration, community service, etc. – or individuals who have made many mistakes and have tried without success to break the cycle for themselves, are constantly having the whole “get a job, contribute to society” lecture crammed down their throats. Sometimes they’re given supports to try and do this, and they actually make significant progress! Maybe they’ve distanced themselves from toxic people in their lives, maybe they’ve attended treatment and put an end to their substance use, maybe they’ve even taken steps to gain education and training to prepare them to enter into the workforce. Whatever progress they’ve made, they know they need to find meaningful work to spend the time that they were otherwise spending on other less-productive things, and they know they need to earn an honest income in order to continue with the positive changes they’ve outlined for themselves (and that are outlined by societal expectations).
The time comes and they find themselves standing in front of potential employers, feeling more confident in their ability to be a part of main stream society than they can ever remember feeling in the past. They’ve created a phenomenal resume, they meet the requirements of the job, they’ve made it through the interview with flying colours, and then they must respond to the request of getting their criminal record check completed and handed in to the employer.
Now, sometimes this is enough to make a person trying to make changes in their life run far and run fast. It might make them weary of applying for another job. It might make them feel like they’ll never be able to escape their past and the only choice going forward is to do what they know how to do to get them through each day. Whether that be stealing, drugs, prostitution, fraud, whatever it was is less scary to them then having to lay every mistake they’ve ever made out on the table for someone to look at and judge whether they are worthy of being given a chance to prove their capabilities to a complete stranger who they hope will pay them for their efforts.
Sometimes though, a person in this situation who is determined to overcome the barriers they knew they may face in their journey will make the choice to be brave and vulnerable. They will choose to be honest and they will lay their mistakes out on the table knowing that this person may use this information to judge whether they are worthy of being given a chance. They will disclose the necessary details and they will explain the steps they have taken to make changes and the steps they plan to continue to take to keep these changes moving in the right direction in hopes that the employer will decide that they are, in fact worthy.
In either situation, what seems to be happening more often than not is that potential employers are unable to see past the mistakes a person has made in the past in order to see the person standing in front of them in that moment, vulnerable, scared, and making an effort and to reach out and ask for a chance.
To my mainstream counterparts, especially those in the position to give chances in the area of employment, I have some suggestions.
1. Why not give a person a chance during the interview process to disclose their past legal involvement and what they’ve done to move forward in their lives. Let’s be honest, the people who have made mistakes and are standing there laying them all out in front of you are the tough ones. These people are the brave ones. These people are the ones who have had to learn the hard way that when mistakes are made it’s how you deal with these mistakes afterward that matter. Instead of turning them down for the job simply because they made a crappy decision in the past and dealt with the consequences, try showing more of an interest in how they handled themselves after making the mistake – that’s often a much better indicator of who a person is than the mistake itself.
2. When asking for references, maybe a person doesn’t have any “legitimate” references to give you. Would you like this person to put down their previous drug dealer so you can ask them about their customer service skills? What about their parole officer so you can ask them about their communication skills? Leave the references for the interview, and have an honest conversation with the potential employee about whether or not they even have the references to give to you at this time in their life. If they’re able to be honest and forthcoming with you about this, maybe you could give them a chance and even be their very first legitimate reference. Talk about giving someone a hand up instead of a hand out, am I right?
3. We as a collective group need to stop telling people that they need to be applying at places like McDonald’s and graciously accepting a position if they’re offered one because “at least you were given a job”. (Seriously no shade being thrown at anyone who is employed at McDonald’s – I know people who love being there and have had many opportunities to move up the corporate ladder and if that’s your thing then you do you my friend!). We tell our 16 year old kids to apply for college when they probably don’t even know what they want for supper let alone what they want career wise. Then we turn to a 43 year old male who has managed to work his way off the streets and out of addiction who, regardless of how or why, has likely lived through and survived experiences we probably can’t ever imagine ourselves having and without a second thought we tell them to settle for working at a fast food restaurant or other minimum wage position and be grateful for the opportunity to do so. Why aren’t we encouraging them to further their education? Why aren’t we supporting them in working towards what they actually want to be doing? Have we even bothered to ask them what they want to be doing? Why aren’t we encouraging each other to be the best we can be and refusing to let each other settle for less than that?