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January 22, 2019

How to Handle a Job Interview When Your Record Is Far From Ideal

If it’s hard to convince your family to trust you again after addiction, it’s far harder to convince someone who knows only that you spent time in jail for drunk driving or illegal possession. When your post-detox responsibilities include finding new work, nervousness over “who’d want to hire someone with my past?” goes with the territory. But optimism and careful planning can get you through.

HAVE YOUR REFERENCES READY

 Favorable references go a long way in convincing potential employers to trust you. To make the best impression, find two or three people who are willing not only to have their contact information listed under “References,” but to provide detailed written recommendations stating why they believe you will be a dependable employee.

People who might furnish referrals include:

  • Your therapist or doctor
  • Social workers
  • Religious leaders
  • Leaders in sobriety or community-service programs
  • Lawyers
  • Probation or parole officers

KNOW YOUR TARGET

 The people who make the best impressions during job interviews are those who already know something about the potential employer. Don’t just read the job description and the first page of the company’s website. Scan the whole site and the company’s social media pages to get a feel for overall atmosphere:

  • Has the company posted a mission statement or list of goals? What values are important to them?
  • Does the website have a blog page? What are the most popular post topics?
  • What does the overall style indicate about the company’s atmosphere? Casual or meticulous? Flippant or reserved? Lighthearted or serious?
  • How do the employees dress for work?
  • Which company events receive the most attention: continuing-education programs, charity sponsorships, galas?

If you arrive at your interview dressed and behaving like someone who already works there, and if you can talk about topics relevant to work as the interviewer knows it, you’ll have a leg up on being someone they like enough to hire. Advance research can also give you an idea of how well this employer would support your sobriety: if they host AA meetings, it’s a good sign. If the “events” pictures are full of wine glasses, approach with caution.

Project an Image That Says “Responsible” and “Likable”

  • Besides dressing in a way appropriate to the company, be well-groomed overall: wrinkle-free clothing, unscuffed shoes, neatly combed hair and clean fingernails. And remember that in most work venues, nose rings and prominently displayed tattoos will count against you. (If the tattoo is on your face, use makeup to conceal it.)
  • Greet everyone with eye contact and a smile. This applies not only to the interviewer, but to every security clearance person and administrative assistant you meet on the way in.
  • Walk straight and tall.
  • Let the interviewer initiate the welcoming handshake. Make your own handshake firm but not crushing. Wait to be asked to sit down: when you do, keep your back straight and both feet on the floor. (Don’t sit with obvious stiffness, though.)

Be Honest But Discreet

 Obviously, you don’t want to lie about your record. But neither do you have to volunteer all the details unless asked. Even if you’ll need flexible hours so you can attend sobriety therapy, or special accommodations to avoid potential relapse triggers, the interviewer wants to hear first what you’ll bring to the company. Don’t rush in with questions about what the company plans to give back to you.

If the interviewer asks why you have a gap in your work record, changed jobs five times in three years or spent time in jail, avoid being any more negative than you absolutely must. Blaming others, carrying on about your bad luck and even talking excessively about your own failures will all work against you. Guide the line of conversation toward, “I made some bad mistakes, but I’ve learned from them and am ready to move forward.”

(Note: It’s acceptable to put “did janitorial/clerical work for state” on a resume if you did that work as an inmate of the state prison. Even under the worst circumstances, any legitimate job looks better than a gap that implies “did nothing worthwhile during that period.”)

Stay Optimistic

 To make a final good impression, send a personal thank-you note to your interviewer. Then don’t just wait for a reply on that one job: keep up the interviews until you find your position.

If you’ve been through several interviews without results, don’t fall into “I’ll never find work because of my record” thinking. Many people with excellent records are rejected by the first dozen companies they interview with. Keep your focus on the next step forward. Review the tips above and consider if you need to make any changes in your approach. If you’re really discouraged, talk to your therapist or support-group peers.

Keep reminding yourself that you will find a job and you do have a successful future. Expecting the best is the first step in getting it!

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