What is a Letter of Explanation and Why Should I Use One? (Justice Involved)

You’ve probably noticed that most job applications include a “criminal history” section. Depending on the state in which the employer is located, questions about one’s convictions − and sometimes even arrests that didn’t lead to convictions − may be permitted. If you’re not familiar with the laws in your state, be sure to review State Laws and Their Impact on Use of Criminal Records for Employment Purposes.

Job applications are often used to narrow down the list of candidates. Even though it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, this knowledge certainly influences the perceptions of the “screener.” It’s important, therefore, to do what you can to avoid being automatically ruled out.

This does not, however, mean you should lie. An employer would be well within its rights to deny employment upon discovering your dishonesty, and even terminate you after you’ve begun working! On a more personal level, lying will undermine your efforts to change your ways, and also cause you the stress of worrying about getting “found out.”

Nor does it mean that you should leave the question blank. At best, this suggests that you have difficulty following instructions and, at worst, that you have something to hide.

So what’s a justice involved individual to do?

A strategy that many people in your shoes have successfully used is this: Answer “yes” to the question if it does, in fact, relate to you. Then, instead of providing the details requested, write a note directing the employer to your attached Letter of Explanation.

Here is a template that you can adapt to your own style and circumstances.

Dear (name of hiring or human resources manager):

This letter explains why I did not give details about my criminal history on the job application. For privacy reasons, and my own embarrassment over past mistakes, I would rather share this information in person.

I will be completely honest with you. I can understand that you might be uncertain about hiring someone who has been involved with the criminal justice system. However, I want you to know that I have turned my life around. I used my time in prison to improve my education, job skills, attitude, and self-control.

I am very sorry for what I have done, and am proud to say that I am a different person now. I want to be a productive member of society, someone my family will be proud of, and a valued employee. I am 100% dedicated to staying on a positive path.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to the opportunity to discuss my possible contribution to (company name).


(your name)

By handling the criminal record section in this way, you’re neither lying nor omitting the truth. Equally important, you’ve created an opportunity to put yourself in a more favorable light!

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