The Best Strategies for Getting Hired With a Criminal Record

Topic(s): fairness, selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Managing a Perilous Stigma: Ex-Offenders’ Use of Reparative Impression Management Tactics in Hiring Contexts
Authors: A.A. Ali, B.J. Lyons, A.M. Ryan
Reviewed by: Beth Melillo

Organizations may fear hiring people with criminal records. Despite growing “Ban the Box” legislation and initiatives (which remove the checkbox asking applicants if they have a criminal record) conducting a criminal background check is still quite prevalent, with some two-thirds of employers requiring a check. At some point, individuals must disclose their conviction, and provide the details that will reassure employers and mitigate the stigma attached to their conviction, with hopes of a job offer.


Previous research indicates that convicted individuals view openness and honesty as the best strategy, but the researchers of this study (Ali, Lyons, & Ryan, 2017), wondered if other impression management tactics beyond disclosure would allay the concerns of interviewers.

The researchers drew from two established bodies of sociology research to construct a hypothesis for how to discuss the stigma of a past conviction. Impression Management (IM), concerns how people choose to present themselves in their everyday lives by controlling information and clues about themselves. The second, Affect Control Theory (ACT), describes how people give off clues about their character, which others may then interpret. Observers may use these signals to determine whether a person is good or bad, powerful or weak, energetic or lazy. So what type of signal should applicants use?


The researchers considered three different types of reparative impression management signals that applicants with past convictions can choose to make sense of their past conviction: apology, justification, and excuse. They compared each of these ways against a baseline of providing no explanation at all. They hypothesized that candidates who provide an apology or justification for their past criminal behavior will be viewed as more remorseful. If candidates provide an excuse, they will be seen as less remorseful. Those who appear remorseful may then overcome the stigma of their conviction and managers will view them as trustworthy and likely to abide by organizational rules.


The researchers presented fictitious candidates to several test groups, including students as well as actual hiring managers. Across both groups, they had participants rate the applicants as remorseful or not, and indicate whether they would recommend hiring this candidate. Candidates who provided an apology or justification were consistently recommended for hiring, and those who provided an excuse were less frequently viewed as trustworthy.

With a third group of actual hiring managers, researchers conducted phone interviews to explore the effect of reparative impression management. Each hiring manager described the formal hiring process at their organization and how convictions are disclosed during the hiring process. Managers provided the actual candidate explanations for their convictions: apology, justification, or excuse, as well as their own reactions to these explanations. The interviews revealed that managers appreciate honesty at a minimum, and reacted positively to both apology and justification. They reacted negatively to candidate excuses.


Gaining full time employment can seem like a monumental hurdle for individuals with past convictions; and lack of employment is, in turn, an influence on the likelihood of re-offending. No money = no options. Considering that a job interview is a place where candidates are eager to put forward their best face, applicants with a past conviction should continue to honestly address their convictions, but also consider emphasizing their remorse by using either of the two strategies studied, apology or justification. An apology that includes accepting responsibility, expressing regret, and promising to abide by the rules can have positive effects on hiring managers. A justification for a conviction can be used when the conviction resulted from a moral obligation, such as helping a family member.   

There are a few points to keep in mind for organizations and hiring managers. First, hiring managers might consider research cited by the authors of this study that finds that employees with criminal records are not chiefly responsible for workplace crimes. Second, giving candidates a chance to explain their past conviction can lead to positive outcomes for applicants and for organizations looking to fill open positions. After all, when presented with the option of explaining themselves, many candidates have a chance to present another key trait organizations are looking for—growth. As one hiring manager reflected on the apology, “I think… that they committed this crime and they are trying to make it right… I think that shows maturity… that they’re taking responsibility and they’re saying that they’re doing something about it.


Ali, A. A., Lyons, B. J., & Ryan, A. M. (2017). Managing a perilous stigma: Ex-offenders’ use of reparative impression management tactics in hiring contexts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(9), 1271-1285.