Clients with criminal records: Get your resume OUT of the rejection pile

Rejected Resumes1

Resumes are never easy to write. There are always hundreds of rules on what you HAVE to do in order to get your resume seen and just as many (if not more) rules for what you should NEVER do with a resume.

Clients who have a criminal background are most likely having issues in their employment. Often times these clients quickly accept the first job they are offered and this job is often one that is less than desirable.  Many jobs that are open to those with a criminal background have long hours, the absolute minimum salary possible, and no respect. Unfortunately, many of these jobs exploit the fact that our clients are prejudiced against in the job market and know they can treat them differently from those without records.

This leaves us with the question of, how can we (as counselors) help?

Most clients do not know about the necessity of a fine tuned resume.  A fine tuned resume is difficult for anyone, but for those with criminal backgrounds, the process can seem daunting.

When helping clients with criminal backgrounds, here are some tips to remember:

  1. Choose the appropriate resume format.  Whereas a chronological resume has become the more “normal” way to create a resume, clients with a criminal record may want to look at another option.  For individuals with gaps in their employment history (say from serving a few years in prison), a chronological resume will just place a large spotlight on that gap in employment.  A functional resume may be more appropriate in these circumstances because they focus primarily on the skills of the client, as opposed to the specific jobs they held.
    NOTE: For some hiring companies, a functional resume may make it look like the applicant is trying to hide something.  However,  if the skills on the resume are strong, it may just get them their foot in the door!
  2. Do NOT list that you served time in jail/prison on your resume.  The resume is your chance to get that coveted interview; it’s hard enough to be seen without listing your familiarity of the inner workings of Sing, Sing.  Save the honest conversation about prison for your interview, and what you have learned.
  3. Did you have a job in prison, but are hesitant about placing it in your job history on the resume? Don’t be. You don’t need to write, “English Tutor, while I was an inmate”. Instead, list the job you had and the name of the prison. Again, leave the explanation for the job interview where you can explain yourself more fully.  Be clear on the skills that you learned while incarcerated and your change process.
  4. Make sure the skills you list are relevant to the job in which you are applying.  If you are applying for a construction worker position, it may not be relevant to list your extensive computing skills unless it is somehow relevant to the job description.  Employers want to see that you took the time to truly see how you are a good fit for their company and a tailored resume is the way to do that.  Listing irrelevant skills may make them think you did not take the time to learn about the job you are applying for and could earn you a spot in the rejection pile.
  5. Were you mandated to complete volunteer work? List it on your resume! It does not matter that the work was mandated, the time you spent helping others is something that hiring managers would love to see so be sure to include it.  Many times, the volunteer work helps fill some of the gaps in the employment history so it helps in more than one way!
  6. Be honest about employment dates. If you have gaps in your employment history, do not lie and change the dates of your other jobs just to make it look like there is no gap.  Employers are usually diligent in their background checks and catching you in a lie like this will most likely not get you the job and may hurt further job opportunities.
  7. Actually, just be honest in general. While writing the skills portion of your resume, you may feel inclined to exaggerate your skills in order to impress the hiring manager.  All of a sudden, your knowledge of how to ask “¿Donde está la cerveza?” (and nothing else) gets written as “Advanced Conversational Spanish”.  Well, what happens when the manager, who just so happens to be Peruvian, begins to conduct the interview in Spanish? Needless to say, it wouldn’t end well.