How to Address a Past Drug- or Alcohol-Related Conviction in a Job Interview


Preparing for a job interview can be even more stressful than it normally is when you have a conviction on your record, a reality that disproportionately affects people with addiction histories. As illustration, statistics from the National Institutes of Health reveal the surprisingly high extent to which addiction is entangled with the criminal justice system:

– 45 percent of inmates in local jails and state prisons have co-occurring substance abuse and a mental disorder.
– The number of adults involved in the criminal justice system rose 1.8 million in 1980 to 7.3 million in 2007, mainly because of increased prosecutions of drug-related crimes (many nonviolent) and drug-addicted persons.

Other research has established a clear link between having an alcohol use disorder and higher rates of drunk driving and DUI convictions.

Whether your past includes a DUI or another drug or alcohol-related conviction, you need to know that you are as entitled to the opportunity to land a new job as any other candidate in the running. On that note, what follow are some tips on how to prepare for a job interview that could entail questions about past drug- or alcohol-related troubles with the law.

How Rehab Can Prepare You for a Job Interview

If you’re still in active addiction, you need to get treated for your disease. Talking about a past addiction with a prospective employer will not be as convincing if you are not successfully sober and in recovery. Often, getting to that point requires going to rehab and completing a treatment plan.

As a safe, supportive, and therapeutic environment, rehab can also be one of the best environments in which to conduct a job search, get connected with potential employers, and prepare for the interview process. Some treatment providers actually allocate staff and resources for the very purpose of helping you find a job.

By way of example, I recently asked Molly Lauroesch, director of alumni and resources at FHE Health, how she helps rehab alumni prepare for interviews when they have convictions on their records. Molly said she regularly gives the following pep talk when helping people prepare for interviews that involve uncomfortable questions:

Be honest on your applications when you have a conviction record. It is better to be up front about past circumstances than to get caught up in a lie. The truth always comes out.

Share only what you’re comfortable sharing — and briefly. Remember that everyone makes mistakes. When asked about a past conviction, be honest but don’t overshare by divulging what’s outside your comfort zone.

Consider sharing how you turned your life around. It can sometimes be beneficial when dealing with a past conviction to share with an employer how you turned your life around and are moving forward. Ultimately, though, this choice — and the degree to which you share about a past conviction — is a personal decision.

“At the end of the day, we always make sure to encourage our alumni to put their best feet forward and try to build a new way of life,” Lauroesch told me. “Regardless of issues in their past, if they continue to work on themselves and push through any hardships, the right opportunity will eventually materialize.”

For more professional success tips, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

Navigating Questions About Your Past When You’re Successfully in Recovery

Say you’ve completed rehab and are now successfully in recovery and trying to move forward with a career. Here are some considerations to bear in mind if or when you get that fateful question about a past drug possession charge, public disorder offense, or DUI:

1. It’s Possible the Employer Already Knows About Your Conviction

Employers sometimes conduct independent background checks when candidates reach the final stages of the hiring process. If you’ve made it to the final interview stage, it is therefore possible you’ll get questions about a past conviction — but it’s also possible the issue won’t come up. After all, if the employer already knows about the conviction and chose you as a finalist nonetheless, they may not be too concerned about it.

2. Emphasize How You Successfully Dealt With the Issue

This is your opportunity to control the facts and limit a prospective employer’s imagination by drawing attention to how you responded to and resolved the matter. Be as concise as possible about the incident. Focus mainly on what you learned from the incident and how you chose to redress the problem.

3. Be Quick to Mention You Went to Rehab

Your time in rehab is an important point to emphasize early on in answering a question about past troubles with the law. If you submitted yourself to rehab, whether voluntarily or at the direction of the courts, mention this fact immediately. It may also help to refer to your addiction as one of the medical conditions that qualify as disabilities under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

4. Emphasize the Skills and Lessons You Learned in Therapy and Rehab

For example, maybe you learned interpersonal and communication skills, how to cope with stress, and the keys to a healthy lifestyle — all of which would be assets to any employer.

5. Talk About How You Continue to Maintain a Healthy Sober Lifestyle

Give some details about the self-care measures you are taking to maintain your sobriety — e.g., seeing a licensed clinical social worker, participating in a recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, etc.

Lastly, bear in mind that in the context of today’s opiate and overdose epidemics, employers, unions, families, and communities are becoming increasingly educated about behavioral health issues such as addiction. You may be surprised just how empathetic a prospective employer can be during a job interview. You may also be shocked to see how many options you now have with respect to recovery-friendly employers.

Janet B. Gerhard is director of public affairs for FHE Health.

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