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Ask HR: Should Job Applicants Disclose Criminal Convictions?

​SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here. 

I was convicted of a felony nine years ago related to something I did when drunk. Since then, I have gone to treatment, been sober, and straightened my life out. I was contacted by a recruiter this week and now have an interview with an excellent prospective employer. I know that if asked, I must disclose. However, should I declare this to the recruiter or anyone at the company before they ask? If so, when should I do it?–Lindsay

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: You raise a valid concern about being asked to disclose the conviction to the recruiter or the prospective employer and whether you should inform the employer prior to them asking. I want to help put your mind at ease and share information on what stage of the hiring process an employer can inquire about your criminal history. A prospective employer should not typically ask you about your criminal record unless it pertains to your job and after rendering a conditional offer. For instance, if you were convicted of DUI, asking about it would be appropriate if you applied to be a driver.

While there is no federal prohibition against an employer asking applicants about criminal history, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides general guidance recommending employers not inquire about convictions on job applications. If an employer does ask, the question should be job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Additionally, several state laws and local ordinances limit the use of arrest and conviction records by prospective employers. Commonly referred to as "ban-the-box" laws, these restrictions prohibit the employer from asking an applicant any questions about criminal records on the employment application or early in the screening process. Recruiters and management should be well-informed about these restrictions and refrain from asking about arrests and convictions during the application and interview screening stages.

Though you might not be required to disclose your conviction, you may want to volunteer the information to the recruiter during the initial interview. Being forthright and honest about what occurred and how you responded to it can be viewed by an employer as honorable and candid. Consequently, this may favorably impact how the employer perceives you. If the prospective employer were to find out about the conviction via a background check, they would only see the conviction, not the human story behind it. They would only know who you were, not the journey to who you are today. Disclosure allows you to control the narrative. Perhaps most importantly, going nine years without incident demonstrates your ability to live and work responsibly.

Hopefully, these insights give you some confidence and direction as you approach your interview to showcase the person you are today.

I have attended career fairs and have yet to get much out of them. I often have a lot of awkward interactions with recruiters and representatives. Expectations of what to bring can vary greatly, as well as the type of industries represented. How can I improve my experience and results at career fairs?–Andre

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: There's more than one way to improve your experience and succeed at a career fair. First, consider your interests. If your desired industry is present, research the career fair in advance for what to bring. If it is unclear what to bring, an updated resume, business card and/or portfolio (depending on your career field) are usually the most common items.

Next, create an elevator pitch. This is simply a short and compelling description of your related experience and what you are looking for in your next job opportunity. Research companies you are interested in and identify some connection points where you and the company can potentially align. Suppose a recruiter doesn't feel you have genuine interest or enthusiasm for the company or job. In that case, it will be an awkward conversation because neither party knows what the other wants out of the interaction. Through your research, you can develop your answers to questions you will likely be asked by recruiters.

Communication is where you can turn an all-too-common conversation into a shining moment. If you want a recruiter to remember you, make a connection. It must be honest and genuine, but you can also engage in the things linking you to someone else, such as a shared college or former employer, or shared values, such as common interest in their company.

The connection will foster engagement and leave a memorable impression. Be prepared to ask the recruiter insightful questions and provide thoughtful responses to their answers. Prioritize building your network.

Keep notes on the people you speak with and follow up with them. Personalizing your contact by mentioning a conversation or shared connection can help you reconnect and engage more readily. Follow up with LinkedIn requests from businesses and individuals. You can also e-mail the hiring manager and recruiter after an event to thank them and remind them of a memorable topic or point in your conversation.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.