For many people who have a less than pristine history, the biggest barrier they face in seeking employment is frequently the fear of disclosing their conviction more than anything else. Ex-offenders cringe at the very thought of having to tell someone their story. For goodness sakes, what are they going to do - say “Boo!” and take away your birthday?
When I am growing a fast-paced business, particularly in a relatively new industry, litigation is fairly common. Invariably, my felony convictions are discovered. When my convictions are brought up in a deposition, I wear it like a badge of honor, because it is then clear that my opponent has absolutely nothing, and they can find nothing, to legitimately disparage my company or me.
When people attack you for what has occurred in your past, it is simply an indication that they are groping for straws - provided however, that you have demonstrated your credibility through post-conviction achievements.
You are who you are. Your past is what it is. Demonstrate that you are transforming yourself through the deliberate and conscious process of setting and achieving goals and conquering challenges, and you'll be fine.
It is not what you did in the past that is important - it is what you have done since, and what you will do moving into the future that counts. The past is dust in the wind. You can't change the past, but you very definitely can control the future.
If you have genuinely made the decision to take a new and socially acceptable life direction, (the "Decision") then a part of that decision is that you will conduct your life, your business and your personal affairs with deliberate and conscious honesty and integrity. No hidden agendas.
If you hope to achieve significant milestones and have long-term stability in your life, there is only one fundamental formula. You can’t dance on the edge, sit on the fence, run hot and cold, be partially legitimate and partially not. It won't work!
You are a package and how you wrap that package will send strong signals and make indelible impressions. No, I’m not referring to how you groom and dress. Dress for Success is covered in other articles, and it is an important practice. For this discussion, I am referring to how you wrap the package that is you - who you are, what you are, and what you project to other people - your very essence.
If you have genuinely made the Decision to embrace a legitimate life path, then at the instant that you make that Decision, you are no longer the same person who did whatever it was you did, which resulted in a conviction and an incarceration event. Even if you are just starting today, you have a future, and you are, or you will be adjusting your choices and behaviors to facilitate achievement.
Whether you make the Decision or not, in reality, whether you want one or not, you are going to have a journey. You destinations are dependent upon how you conduct yourself during your journey. It’s all your choice, and the consequences or benefits of your choice are yours as well.
If you have made the Decision, then you are in fact a different person heading in a completely different life direction. Because you are a different person, when compared to who you are today, your past behaviors were behavioral aberrations. Having made the Decision to move forward in a new and productive life direction, those past behaviors do not fit the character of the new person you are, who will strive to achieve success through legitimate methods.
A behavioral aberration is analogous to walking down the street and seeing a cat sitting on the sidewalk. You walk up to the cat and say, "Hello kitty." In response, the cat looks up at you and barks like a Bulldog, but then hesitates for a second, puts it paw over its mouth and says, "oops, I mean, Meeooowwww." If a cat barks, it is totally out of character for a cat - it is a behavioral aberration. It was not within its normal behavior to bark like a bulldog.
When I think back about my behavioral aberration, it is so totally foreign to the person I am today, I cannot believe that I did that. It almost seems like it could not possibly have been me. It must have been a story I read in a book or a movie I saw, but it could not have possibly been the same me. It wasn’t the same me. I deliberately changed that person, and that person who I was before no longer even exists. You can change too. No, it is not easy – it's hard, but you can do it, and the benefits are phenomenal.
Before you made the Decision, you had certain behaviors. But, because you have made the Decision, you are focused on your future and you are in a life-long process of modifying your behaviors in a very deliberate and productive direction.
Once you make the Decision, then you are on a mission and you will embrace behaviors and habits that will produce predictable and positive results. When those behaviors of yesteryear are compared to the person you are today, those past behavioral aberrations become totally out of character. A person on a mission is focused on looking at the future – they never look back.
This is the new you. You are a new person with a new outlook and a new and fresh future. Begin now seeing yourself as the person you are and the person you are to become - not the person you were in the past. It really does just boil down to making a simple Decision. The Decision really is simple. The execution of your Decision will definitely incorporate a little work, sacrifice, pain and frustration. But, it is all worth it!
Now, how do we wrap the package that includes the past so it makes a positive presentation to those people who you will meet in your future – some of whom have a right to know about your past? This might include employers, business associates, lenders, inventors, and various other people who might be in a position to help you achieve a prosperous future.
Whenever I have seen the question on any application, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony," it provides two possible selections. A check box for "Yes," and a check box for "No." I always draw my own check box and write: "Behavioral Aberration" -or- "Youthful Indiscretion," then I check that box.
If you try this, or something similar, it definitely raises an eyebrow and arouses some curiosity. It sets a stage where you have the ability to present your package in a positive light as opposed to trying to justify your background in what feels like a grueling and negative interrogation. This may at least open the door for an interview, and if it does, chances are the atmosphere will be one in which you will have that opportunity to present your package positively.
I have had people meet me in their lobby and ask, "What does this 'Behavioral Aberration' mean?" I politely place a hand on their shoulder and say, "Let’s take a minute in your office and I'll explain it." That has always gotten me in the door. I then practice my 30-second rule, which I thoroughly explain during my seminars, which will almost always result in a positive outcome.
If it doesn't open the door, then the interviewer may just be predisposed to taking a negative posture. You may not even want this interview since it may only serve to provide a forum for someone to exalt themselves and their own ego by passing judgment on you, and thereby depleting your enthusiasm and energy. So sometimes, if you don’t get the interview, consider it a gain.
Now, before you speak to anyone about a job, internalize this concept. Be an open book. Have your cards face up, and no hidden agendas. People hate hidden agendas. If you dance around a question or give vague answers that do not seem sensible, it arouses skepticism. Once you arouse suspicion, you have nailed the door shut and this opportunity has passed. Conversely, when you open up, lay out your cards face up, tell your story – the real honest to God truth, people get a warm fuzzy feeling and have a propensity to want to help.
Have you ever helped someone without any expectation for anything in return? Assuming that you have, how do you feel about yourself when you do that?
People innately want to help other people, in part because helping someone else makes us feel good about our self. If you can appeal to this intrinsic need that most people have – to help other people because it satisfies their need for a feeling of gratification, then you both win. You get the job, and even more importantly, they get you. It's their lucky day!
Are you not in fact a person capable of bringing tremendous value to an employer? Of course you are. We’re just working on wrapping the package so all of your good attributes shine, and those good characteristics dilute anything that you might think is negative in your past.
It is interesting that we human beings are engineered with this innate craving for the feeling we only get when we have helped someone with no expectation for anything in return. The need for that feeling continues to grow the more we exercise the mechanism that generates the feeling that comes from helping others. It is among life’s natural opiates.
You can capitalize upon this phenomenon of human nature to your advantage. People want to help the underdog. The only thing that will prevent them from helping you is if you create any suspicion, skepticism or a feeling that they cannot believe what you are telling them.
I have found that people are attracted to openness and honesty, and when those elements are present during conversation, most people genuinely want to help.
When people help you, the goodwill feeling they get is so powerful, they will go even further to prolong their feeling by telling their co-workers and spouse how they helped an underdog get their life straightened out. If you do a good job and receive a promotion, the person who helped you get that job will get another injection of this opiate by taking bragging rights - "Yep, of course he got promoted. After all, I hired him!"
Another really important element in achieving success after you have made the Decision is to be willing to accept the job that no one else wants.
If you have earned a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree, that will be very helpful during your career, but not immediately. An employer’s immediate focus is going to be on your most recent significant event in your life. Like it or not, we are all judged based upon our last act. When released from prison, your "last act" was likely something that the majority of our civilized society will consider socially unacceptable in one form or another. However, as I stated previously, if you are an open book, then they will not have the skepticism that would otherwise accompany an agenda of trying to dance around the felony conviction questions, chuck-n-jive or rationalize whatever it was you did to earn your sabbatical at a state or federal facility.
Unless you have a dream job lined up, you can begin creating your new most recent significant event by accepting the job that no one else wants. That will give you a start at rebuilding a resume and collection of work references. You can climb from there.
During a visit I had at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, I spent the better part of the day with a group of offenders who were slated for release within the next six months. We conducted mock job interviews.
During each interview, I always threw out test questions to determine a person's flexibility. I told several individuals that the only position we have available right now is janitorial – keeping the facilities and bathrooms clean.
After the interview, a couple of these individuals told the class instructor that they were insulted and thought my questions and offer of janitorial work was disrespectful.
Flexibility test questions are very common during real interviews. Employers do not want to hire someone into a position who is going to give them grief if asked to do something that deviates from the strict construction of their job description. Employers need people who can be flexible.
These same individuals that complained to the instructor that they would not accept a position unless it was upper management, rationalized their complaint because while in prison, they had earned a college degree. That’s a great accomplishment, but they're competing with roughly 40,000 other college grads that I can pluck right out of my back yard no matter where my business is located.
I sometimes think that some ex-offenders subconsciously set the expectations bar so high that they know there is no employer who is going to offer them the vice president position. Then, when they are turned down, they are justified in their failure, and they can blame it all on everyone and everything except he who stares back in the mirror.
As an employer, I recognize an ex-offender’s credentials much the same as a recent college graduate. I judge them on the basis of their most recent significant event – finishing school or a term in prison, and on their attitude. The only thing that is going to get either of them the break they need is their attitude. Their attitude can get them in the door. Once they’re in, what they do with it is up to them. Whether a person was recently released from prison or recently graduated from college, they have a mountain in front of them. It’s up to the individual to decide whether or not they have the courage to make the climb.
Whether I am interviewing a recent college grad or a recently released individual from incarceration, I am not going to give them the keys to the vault. In other words, I am not going to give them a position whereby I have to trust in their dependability, accountability and credibility. I cannot afford to put someone in a position whereby I become reliant upon him or her producing positive results consistently until they have proven themselves. Once a person has proven him or herself, then I would be insane not to promote them and provide them with a handsome compensation package. I don't want to lose dependable people who make my life easier, and neither does any other employer who has anything going on between their ears. But, initially, don't ask people to take a big risk.
The concept that a felony conviction, or three of them in my case, will prevent a person from achieving a healthy life of normalcy is utter propaganda that is perpetuated by those who have failed to genuinely and fully embrace the necessary changes, and endure the pain that is an integral component of change.
For offenders who would contact me for employment, or any other assistance, I should mention that I am not a prisoner advocate. Until a person decides to change their path, there is nothing that I, or anyone else, can do for them except stay on my path and observe.
I am a card-carrying member of mainstream society. I have no positions or sympathy for practicing criminals, or those who think they can be partially legitimate, but still play the game by taking an occasional opportunity where they can realize a quick gain via illegitimacy.
When a person decides that they genuinely want to become a member of my world, I have nothing but time for them. But, there is zero chance that I am going to become a member of their world unless it is completely open and legitimate. I can spot the one’s who are giving lip service long before I make any significant investment of my time.
Be willing to accept the job that no one else wants! …I did. And, that was the start of what led to a very fulfilling and rewarding life.