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THE QUESTION

I was incarcerated for trafficking narcotics several years ago. As a result, I have a federal criminal record. I am ineligible to apply for a pardon for eight more years.

My criminal record is hamstringing my job search. Every job seems to ask for a background check as a condition of employment.

How can I work around this problem? What can I do to get a job before they prejudge me?

THE FIRST ANSWER

Shannon Young

Director of Human Resources, Randstad Canada, Toronto

The law does not allow employers to disqualify candidates solely on the basis of a criminal conviction. In order to do so, they need to establish that the nature of your conviction is related to the role for which you've applied, and that choosing not to hire you is necessary to protect their or the public's best interests. In the financial, education, or health care sectors, it may be a legitimate occupational requirement that you have a clean criminal background.

My advice is to be honest and up front in your job search. When asked to complete a background check, provide a response that details your experience and qualifications for the core responsibilities of the job, explain the nature of the conviction and how it's not related to your ability to perform those tasks. Detail the steps you've taken to improve your personal circumstances and prevent a relapse. Offer professional references to speak to the quality of your work, and list any personal or professional development activities you've completed. Keep a positive and open mind. You could also suggest a contract-to-permanent offer, which gives them a chance to test you out, and you the opportunity to prove yourself.

Most importantly, take responsibility for your actions. Employers won't hire someone who hasn't learned from their mistakes and accepted the consequences of their actions.

THE SECOND ANSWER

Julie Labrie

President of BlueSky Personnel Solutions, Toronto

First, consider the types of jobs for which you are applying. Criminal background checks are usually required for jobs that handle sensitive information or finances, where you must be bondable, are working with children or vulnerable persons, are required to travel internationally, or are working on a secured job site. It's also often required for employee theft prevention.

Second, consider small or medium-sized businesses that may not have as many stringent or blanket policies. Though you are not required to voluntarily disclose your conviction, if an employer requires a background check, it may give you an opportunity to speak candidly about your record, directly with the company owner. In such an instance, highlight the positive things you've done over the past several years since your incarceration, in terms of work experience and charitable or community-driven volunteer efforts.

In the past, we have had a few candidates who proactively shared with us that they had a criminal record. Accordingly, we advised our clients who were interested in these candidates. Prior to making a job offer, they ran background checks as per their processes, and decided to hire them.

It can feel like an uphill battle, but there are success stories out there. Stay positive, strategically look for the most viable job opportunities, and when you have a chance, share your story so the focus is not solely on your incarceration but on the good things you've done.

Got a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that mine field? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Your confidentiality is ensured.

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