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Can I get a federal job with a criminal record?

Having a criminal record does not automatically bar a person from most federal government positions. It does make it harder to get your foot in the door. It can hinder advancement for jobs with higher security clearance. But it should not stop you from applying for federal jobs.

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Nearly 1 in 3 adults in America have criminal skeletons in their closet, from felony convictions to misdemeanor arrests. That's a lot of people to exclude from the candidate pool. The federal government has begun to relax the rules to give a fairer shot at federal employment opportunities to otherwise qualified applicants who are shut out because of drug convictions or other criminal history.

Do federal agencies "ban the box?"
Any criminal conviction can be a significant barrier to employment, particularly in the federal sector. Because people of color have been disproportionately convicted of felonies, they are doubly disadvantaged and thus underrepresented in the federal workforce. Two dozen states, a number of large cities and a growing number of private employers have eliminated the checkbox on job applications that requires applicants to disclose criminal history.

President Obama has directed the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to institute "ban the box" in the federal hiring process. There would be no checkbox on the initial application. Federal employers could still ask about criminal history later in the hiring process, when it would not necessarily be a deal breaker. What was the nature and degree of the crime? How long ago was the arrest or conviction? Isolated incident or pattern of behavior?

For now, federal agencies still screen applicants on the basis of criminal records. Certain crimes are automatic disqualifiers. A domestic violence conviction precludes any federal position that involves interaction with firearms. Some departments reject applicants with convictions for theft or white collar crimes. The FBI does not hire felons, period.

How should I handle my criminal past in seeking federal employment?

Government employers want assurance that you are loyal and trustworthy, especially in security clearance positions. Many human resource experts suggest honesty is the best policy:

  • Be forthright. Disclose convictions or arrests as required on the form. (Omitting a felony on a job application is itself a crime.) The employer will eventually conduct a criminal background check anyway.
  • Be prepared if it comes up in an interview. If you did the crime, don't dodge the question or sugarcoat it. If there were extenuating circumstances, this is your opportunity to explain your side of the story. Rather than excuses, emphasize what you learned or changed.
  • Be proactive. It may be wise to bring up your criminal past early in the process. It shows you have nothing to hide and allows you to shape the narrative.

The law firm of Passman & Kaplan represents federal employees in all employment matters. If you were denied security clearance or face adverse employment action because of allegations of criminal misconduct - past or present - please reach out to us at 202-789-0100 or 800-881-0140.

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