In 2009/2010 374,500 people in Australia had been “up close and personal” with the Australian justice system. It would be fair to assume that in the past three years what with the growing demand for police action on our roads, and the pressures of job lay-offs and a turbulent economy, that those figures will have increased. It is also fair to assume that many of those people will want to secure new employment either now or in the future, and with today’s employers increasingly conducting criminal background or credit checks—it pays to be prepared when the inevitable questions are raised. Before you go back to the large corporate or multinational, put some distance between yourself and the problem.
Do Your Research
First, many employers simply do not venture into the world of credit and reference checking. These companies are more likely to be small-to-medium businesses that already have hefty overheads without going to the extra expense of checking each new employee. They take a calculated risk approach to hiring. How can you find these companies? Try your network. Do you have friends that work there? If so, you can ask about their experiences.
Avoid Employment Background Checks: Thought of a Different Type of Job?
Some employers may be willing to overlook minor indiscretions if they see little risk of you repeating the offence on-the-job. For instance a shoplifting offence is probably going to be a difficult hurdle for a retail employer to overcome, yet less so for a employer of customer service staff in a large call centre environment. If you can, try to re-align your skills to a dissimilar environment with less obvious temptations that will calm employer fears.
Let’s not approach it this way at interview:
Lying about your background is a poor idea and you’re likely to be found out anyway. However, there are ways to discuss your brush with the justice system (or credit record issues) that can go a long way towards being accepted by employers. The key is pre-empting the discussion by getting in first. So how do you find out if an employer is going to conduct any kind of credit or criminal checks?
Not like this: “I was wondering are you going to do criminal or credit checks?” (followed by a guilty grimace).
Be naturally curious; let the interview flow
“Thanks so much, I’ve really enjoyed our discussion today and I’m very keen to have my candidacy advance to the next phase. So, what are the next steps? Will you be asking for my references, doing background and credit checks, interviewing a few more people…what comes next?” Your natural curiosity for finding out next steps is perfectly reasonable and won’t raise red flags. You’ll also get an answer to the question you’ll be looking for so you can prepare.
So what do you say, if the answer is “Yes, credit and criminal checks come next“?
You need to prepare potential employers for what they’re about to find out. You need to do it sincerely and place it in the context of “lessons learned”.
“I should mention to you that you’re likely to see a blemish on my credit record and it is something that I’m working hard to resolve. Up until a couple of years ago I had a perfect record, however like many Australians affected by lay-offs around that time, I found it hard to meet my commitments. It was a really difficult period of my life and I’ve worked with a financial and budgeting professional to ensure this is never repeated.”
This method shows you admitting the ‘blemish’, indicating it was a one-off situation, and that you’ve learned a lesson. People do forgive and they don’t like surprises, so getting in first is a smart move.
Similarly with brushes with the law. “I should mention to you then, that I have had dealings with the justice system that will show up on the report. To be frank with you, I made the biggest mistake of my life a few years ago and I’ve worked hard to make amends with my family and the community. Since that time, I’ve made myself a personal commitment—which I’ve kept. I’ve joined community groups and thrown myself into my work where I have enjoyed good performance reviews and re-earned the respect of managers, colleagues and my family ever since”.
How you present information is also important. If I said that something happened in 1998, you’ll probably think that was just a few years ago. (It is actually 15 years ago). So when describing a past issue, use number of years to make it seem further away. “15 years ago, I went through a difficult period” sounds a lot further away than “In 1998 I was arrested for shoplifting”.
Starting again is hard
We all make mistakes; some of us make more than others, and some mistakes are more serious than others. Many are never repeated but their impact remains fresh for years. How that will affect your career will depend on many things including the seriousness of the offence and the time and environmental distances you can put between the issue and the job for which you’re applying. Sometimes your past will never come up and other times it will. Lying about it will deny you the opportunity to explain it and frame it in a way that will at least be considered.