Friday, April 23, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Stain on a Background Check

I suspect that variations on this will become more common in the next several years. A new correspondent writes:

I had a felony drug possession conviction 11 years ago, went to drug rehab for 18 months (outpatient) while I worked, then had the felony dropped due to graduation of rehab in 2001. I still have a misdemeanor drug possession in 1998 that I am getting expunged in 2 weeks. The problem is I just got back from an interview that went well. They did a background check and the head hunter said it was due to the background check that they dropped me. What should I do? I have been trying for months and have an excellent resume and very good references but I got involved with drugs for a couple years in the 1990's.

(This was for a technical staff position, which explains the 'headhunter' reference.)

With any background check issue like this, I'd look at your role as setting context. If you wait for them to discover what's out there -- and on something like a criminal conviction, they usually will -- then you're at the mercy of how they choose to interpret it. But if you can get out in front of the story and frame it for them, you at least have a chance of getting past it. As they say in politics, it's not the crime; it's the coverup.

A few years ago I agreed to hire a faculty member who had a drug conviction in his distant past. The key issues were that the past was, in fact, distant; he had kept his nose clean (no pun intended) since then; he had established a strong local record as an adjunct; and he brought it up. (By contrast, and I swear that I'm not making this up, I had a case several years ago of an adjunct who had been terminated for missing class on a regular basis. He appealed the termination, but missed the hearing because he got pulled over for driving under the influence of a controlled substance on his way to the hearing. The decision stood.)

The etiquette of when and how to disclose is the tricky part. If the felony conviction has been dropped, I'd argue that you're on solid ground to answer 'no' to the felony question. (I have to stipulate here that I'm not a lawyer.) However, if you get to the first interview stage, that would be the time to disclose. The key is to frame it much as you did here; you went off the tracks for a brief period many years ago, but you paid your penalty and you've been trouble-free for over a decade. In the meantime, you've built your impressive credentials, and now let's talk about your love of teaching.

From a hiring perspective, a few things may be going on. One is fear of liability. Another is skepticism about whether you've truly come clean; I'd think that a decade or more should be enough to establish that, but that's me. Then there's just the generally awful job market, and the fact that in many cases, committees are actively looking for reasons to exclude candidates. An old drug conviction is something to hang your hat on if you're looking for it. That may seem cruel, but when you're winnowing down a pile of 200 applications to a shortlist of ten, you'll grab any excuse to exclude.

You can't necessarily control how people will respond to the information they dig up, but you can offer other information to offset it. In the age of Google, that may be the best we can do.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an effective strategy for getting around something like this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.