Overcoming Past Legal Issues to Land the Job

Questions around past legal trouble have come up multiple times recently, so it's worth addressing. A reader writes, "I'm a job seeker with a felony record and a college degree. I can't expunge the record, and I'm not sure what to do. Where should I begin?"

First, I'm sorry to hear that this is a common issue people face in the work world. It can be difficult from both the employee's and the employer's perspective. One common scenario is someone making a mistake at a young age, learning from the experience, growing up, and moving on. Unfortunately, their legal record doesn't move on with them.

In today's competitive job market, past legal issues can still impact your ability to land a job – even if those issues should rightfully be left in the past. People hire people, and people have biases.

Given this challenging reality, here are a few tips you can follow if you find yourself in this situation:

Focus on Relationships

First, make absolutely sure there's no possible way to clear your record. Then, begin to work on your job search strategy. Much like someone just starting their career, you will need to prove yourself to future employers. One very good way to do that is by building relationships.

Start with a list of potential employers. Consider targeting relatively small companies, as that will give you a better shot at connecting with an owner, executive, or hiring manager. Look for opportunities to network within these companies and within your target industry. You want to get to know the decision-makers.

Consider volunteering your time in the community. Work on projects that demonstrate leadership and personal growth. Include these accomplishments on your resume. They will help to build a positive personal brand and show employers the person you are now, not the person you used to be.

The overall goal is this: Rather than be another anonymous online applicant, you want to be someone the company already knows and trusts. If decision-makers know you, they may call you when jobs are available – even before those jobs are advertised to the public. You want to be someone they know can get the job done.

Don't Dwell on the Past

When asked about your past by a potential employer, be honest but brief. Share as much information as the company needs. If an employer asks more questions, answer them honestly. Then, explain how you have learned, grown, and moved on with your life. The most important thing is that your future employer trusts you. By being open and honest, you are more likely to build that trust.

This situation is a difficult one, but it's not impossible to overcome. Remember that every job seeker has something in their biography that worries them. It may be their age, their lack of a college degree, or something else. I realize that dealing with a legal mistake is more difficult than the other examples, but building relationships with decision-makers can go a long way. It may take some time and effort, but it will be worth it in the end.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Memphis Daily News.

Angela Copeland is a career coach and CEO at her firm, Copeland Coaching.