Most employers do not contact your previous employers unless you are being seriously considered as a candidate for the job. If you fear that one of your previous employers may not give you a positive reference, here are some things you can do:
List someone other than your former supervisor as a reference. Tap
someone who knew your work there and who will put in a good word for you.
Discuss the issue in advance with your previous employer and negotiate what he or she will say. Even if it's not good, at least you know what they are likely to say and can prepare potential employers in advance.
Get a written letter of reference. In many cases, employers will not give references over the phone or e-mail (or negative references at all) for fear of being sued. Presenting a letter of reference ensures that you know what is said about your performance.
A resume or application should never include negative information. So if you have ever been in trouble with the law, you would certainly not mention it in these documents. Newer laws prohibit an employer from including such general questions on an application as "Have you ever been arrested?" and limit formal inquiries to "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
In this country, we are technically innocent until proven guilty, and that is why employers are no longer allowed to consider an arrest record in a hiring decision. Being arrested and being guilty are two different things. Arrests for minor offenses (misdemeanors) are also not supposed to be considered in a hiring decision. The argument has been that minorities and urban youth are more likely to have arrest records and consideration of arrest records in a hiring decision is, therefore, discriminatory.
A felony conviction is a different matter. These crimes are more serious, and current employment laws do allow an employer to ask for and get this information and to use it in making certain hiring decisions. For example, few employers would hire an accountant who had been convicted of stealing money from a previous employer. An employer also can consider certain types of arrest records in making certain hiring decisions. For example, few employers would place a person who has been arrested for or convicted of child molesting in charge of a day-care facility or youth program.
If you have an arrest or conviction record that an employer has a legal right to inquire about, my advice is to avoid looking for jobs where your record would be a negative. The accountant in the previous example should consider changing careers. Even if the accountant did get a job by concealing his or her criminal history, that person could be fired at any time in the future. Instead, I might suggest that person consider selling accounting software, starting his or her own business, or getting into a completely different career unrelated to managing money.
As always, your interview should emphasize what you can do rather than what you can't. If you choose your career direction wisely and present a convincing argument that you can do the job well, many employers will, ultimately, overlook previous mistakes. As you prove yourself and gain good work experience, your distant past becomes less and less important.
Background Checks, Polygraphs, or Other Tests?
Many employers screen applicants before hiring. Screening is more common for jobs where theft can be a problem, for jobs that involve work with children, and for positions that require driving. Background checks may include drug screening, credit history, criminal history, verification of education and training, checks with past employers, and other inquiries depending on the position. In some cases an employer will not consider hiring anyone who does not agree to these background checks. Some employers are also using computerized or paper tests to identify people who are likely to be dishonest or have other personality-driven job-related problems.
In general, you need to convince an employer that you can be trusted to do a good job. If you have done a good job in preparing your responses, I suggest that you agree to background checks for jobs that interest you. If you have a serious problem in your background, you need to consider in advance how you will handle employer requests to check your background.
If you do have a problem that is likely to prevent you from getting a job if an employer becomes aware of it, avoid careers and jobs where your past would be a problem. Use job search methods that are less likely to require this information as part of the screening process. You can then explain your situation and why it is not a problem after you get a job offer.