Job Search Guide Now Available

We are happy to announce that our job search guide is done and ready for distribution. We developed our job search guide to help support formerly incarcerated job seekers. This comprehensive guide includes a job search checklist, skills & experience assessment, tips on how to draft a conviction statement, sample resume, sample job application, monthly budget worksheet, common interview questions, advice for addressing criminal history in interviews and more.

This guide was developed by Pacific Reentry Career Services co-founders Stephanie Hammerwold and Tim Pershing. Stephanie drew from more than a decade working in human resources to create this guide.

If you are a service provider and would like to order copies of our guide to use with your clients, visit our online store. Guides are $10 each.

All of our job search clients will receive a copy of the guide for free. If you are a formerly incarcerated individual and want to find out more about how to get the guide, get in touch through our Become a Client page.

How to Overcome Interviewer Bias

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As much as we try to make the interview process fair by sticking to work-related questions and avoiding discussion of protected classes, our own biases sometimes sneak into our hiring decisions. Maybe you tend to lean toward single parents because it resonates with your own experience being raised by a single mom, or perhaps you had a bad experience hiring someone with a criminal conviction, so now you automatically throw such candidates in the reject pile. Unfortunately, making such assumptions may mean that you miss out on great candidates, and it could also mean that your hiring process is unfair and possibly discriminatory. It is, therefore, important to understand our own biases and to actively work to adjust the hiring process to overcome such biases.

What is Interviewer Bias?

One of the most common forms of bias comes in the form of stereotyping. Take, for example, a job like firefighter, which is physically demanding. If you assume a candidate is not strong enough to be a firefighter because she is a woman, you are relying on stereotypes rather than assessing if the candidate meets the physical requirements for the job. Stereotyping during the interview process can cause big problems, especially when stereotypes about protected classes result in negative hiring decisions. Such practices are discriminatory and could cause legal trouble for an employer.

We may also be tricked by our first impressions into thinking a candidate is exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. This is called the halo/horns effect. This might show up in a bias toward attractive candidates. The candidate’s charm and good looks may get in the way of an interviewer seeing potential problems. Conversely, a candidate who checked yes to the application question about criminal conviction may automatically be viewed as untrustworthy even if the rest of their application and interview are glowing. Such biases get in the way of making good hiring decisions.

We are often drawn to those similar to us, and this can be another bias pitfall. Maybe your estimation of a candidate improves once you find out they are the same religion as you or they share similar political views. Just as with stereotypes, such criteria may be discriminatory and get in the way of really understanding if someone is qualified for the job.

Recognizing Your Own Biases

Overcoming bias starts with recognizing your own prejudices and biases. Once you acknowledge such things, you can be aware of how they may influence your hiring decisions. When I first started interviewing candidates early in my HR career, I noticed that I could easily be swayed by a hard luck story. While some of these candidates were truly ready to move beyond the problems of their pasts and could end up being star employees, sometimes my bias got in the way of recognizing red flags, and I ended up with a few bad hires. Since my early days in HR, I learned to recognize when my desire to root for the underdog was clouding my judgment.

None of us is completely free of bias and prejudice. The important thing is to understand how these things may influence the employment decisions we make. Doing the work before interviewing candidates will ultimately lead to a process that is fairer and free of potentially discriminatory practices.

Structured Criteria & Selection Process

After understanding your own biases, take some time to create a structured hiring process. Start with a job description that clearly lists the qualifications. This is the foundation for establishing criteria against which you can evaluate all candidates. When you determine a reason for rejecting someone, you should be able to point to specific qualifications on the job description that they do not meet.

Have a set of interview questions that are the same for all candidates. This is a good way to ensure interviews stay on track and do not veer into areas that might allude to protected classes. It also helps to limit interview conversations to areas that are relevant to making a good hiring decision and encourages uniformity in the type of information gathered from each candidate.

Make Selection a Group Effort

It is also useful to have several people involved in the hiring process. Pay attention to what others in the hiring process are using to make their decisions, and address any bias you see in how they evaluate candidates. It can also be useful to run selection criteria by others to ensure that criteria are free of bias and are focused on qualifications, skills and experience relevant to the job.

Working with others in the hiring process can be especially beneficial for those new to interviewing who may not yet be aware of their own biases. It is a good opportunity to openly discuss how certain biases may influence decisions and for veteran interviewers to also check in with themselves in an effort to keep the interview process bias-free.

This post originally appeared on HR Hammer.

How to Answer Common Interview Questions

By Stephanie Hammerwold

So, you have sent in your resume, filled out an application and you managed to land an interview with a prospective employer. Now what? It is hard to know exactly what an interviewer will ask, if they will throw challenging questions what questions you should ask them. Even though each employer does things a little differently, there are ways you can practice your responses to common questions in order to better prepare for the interview. Even if the types of answers you have prepared do not come up in the interview, they will still be good practice for talking about yourself and your experience.

Tell Me About Yourself

Many interviews start with some variation of this statement. Prior to an interview, work on a brief overview of your experience and why you would be a good fit for the job. Include any relevant training or education. This is a commercial about you and a chance to make a good first impression. Remember to keep your statement brief, and avoid going into great detail about your life story.

How Did You Hear About Us?

When an employer asks this question, they are not necessarily trying to collect data on how job seekers hear about the company. They want to see if you did your homework prior to the interview. Always make time to read up on a company before you arrive for an interview. This is also a good way to come up with some questions for the interviewer about the job as well as the company.

When you do your research on the company, get a sense of how you might fit into the culture there. This will help you to figure out how to highlight the areas of your experience that show you are a good fit. An employer may also ask you why you want to work for them. Being prepared with background information on the company will help you answer this question.

Why Did You Leave Your Last Job? Tell Me About this Gap in Your Employment.

Both of these questions can trip up a candidate—especially if your reason for leaving a job or being off work for a long time were not positive. While you may be tempted to lie to cover up problems in your past, this may lead to trouble when an employer conducts a background check and finds out the truth. It is better that they hear it from you, so put some time into practicing how you will answer questions about problems in our past.

Put a positive spin on negative experiences. For example, if you were fired from a job for attendance issues, explain what you have done to make changes. Maybe the issue was with not having reliable transportation, but you now have a good car, so this is not a problem anymore. Avoid blaming a past employer or your boss for the problems. Accept responsibility, and show how you have changed from the experience.

The same goes for gaps in employment. While you do not need to go into great detail about the reason for a gap, be honest. It is sufficient to say that you were taking time off to look for a new job, go to school or deal with family issues.

What Type of Pay and Schedule are You Looking for?

Be honest with your answers to these questions. Sometimes candidates are tempted to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear. You want to make sure the job is a good fit in terms of pay and schedule, so it can cause problems at the time of hire if you lie about availability or accept a job that does not meet your financial needs.

When an employer asks about pay, they often want to make sure you are in the pay range for the position. It ends up being a waste of time for you and the interviewer if you keep interviewing for a job that is way below the wage you need to pay your expenses.

This advice also works for questions about the type of work environment you are looking for. Remember that you want to make sure the company is a good fit for you, so make sure the business is a place you would be comfortable working.

What Was Your Biggest Accomplishment at Your Last Job?

It is a good idea to come up with a few things you are proud of from your previous work. Remember that you can also draw from volunteer experience and school if your work history is limited. Come up with several different examples as well as things that you learned from in the past. These are stories you can draw from if asked specific questions about things like how you handle difficult customers or a time you worked through a disagreement with a coworker or supervisor.

What are Your Strengths/Weaknesses?

It is usually easy to come up with a couple strengths, but candidates often struggle with how to answer questions about weaknesses. As with blemishes in your work history, turn a negative into a positive. If, for example, public speaking makes you nervous, talk about how you have started attending Toastmasters meetings to work on getting more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.

Be Prepared to Talk About You

It is a good idea to get a friend to interview you prior to meeting with an employer. This is a chance to practice speaking about yourself and your experience. The more you do so, the more comfortable you will feel during an interview. If an interviewer stumps you with a question, you can ask them to come back to the question later. Just because you cannot come up with an answer on the spot, it does not mean you have automatically disqualified yourself. Many candidates get nervous, and interviewers are often willing to give you a chance to think about your answer.

Are you formerly incarcerated and looking for more help preparing for interviews? Get in touch with us to find out how Pacific Reentry Career Services can help you prepare for your job search.

How to Address Blemishes in Your Work History

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Most of us have some kind of blemish in our work history. Maybe you were let go from a job, you have a long gap in employment or you check yes to the question about having a criminal conviction. Those things can be stressful when filling out job applications. If you are called for an interview, it can be an added challenge to figure out how to explain them while still making yourself look like the ideal candidate. In these situations, it is important to remember that things like criminal convictions, gaps and terminations are not the full story of your experience and qualifications. By preparing in advance and thinking through standard responses to these questions, you can turn a blemish into a positive and use it as a way to show you are the best candidate for the job.

Be Honest

It may be tempting to lie about areas of concern in your work history, but be careful. Potential employers may do reference and background checks, and lying could be grounds for automatic rejection. If you are hired based on false information, and an employer later finds out, they could terminate your employment for falsifying the application.

Instead of coming up with an elaborate excuse or outright lying, use the interview as an opportunity to take control of the story of your blemishes and put a positive spin on what happened by showing how you have learned from the experience, grown or changed your life for the better.

Criminal Convictions

As an HR professional who has interviewed countless applicants in the course of my career, I have received this question many times: how do I address my past criminal convictions in a job interview? This is one of the biggest hurdles for anyone with a conviction looking for a job.

Addressing convictions starts with the job application. If this question comes up on the application, keep your answer brief. State the year of the conviction and a few words to describe it with a note that you will discuss it in more detail during an interview. You can also learn about various tax credits and federal bonding available to an employer when they hire an ex-offender. Programs include the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and the Federal Bonding Program. The National HIRE Network has a list of programs offered at the state level. Sharing information on these programs can help encourage an employer to give you a chance, and it also shows you did your research prior to applying for jobs.

When it comes to the interview, keep your explanation brief. Once again, remember to be honest and take responsibility. Use the interview as an opportunity to show how you have improved and made changes in your life.

For example, if you have a drug conviction, explain that you made some bad choices in the past and have since gone through treatment and have successfully maintained your sobriety. This helps show an interviewer that you are able to move past blemishes in your past. If you participated in any education or vocational training while incarcerated, mention those things during the interview. This will help turn your conviction into an inspiring story about how you overcame a major challenge in your life rather than just being about the conviction.

Gaps in Employment

When the recession hit in 2008, many employees were laid off from jobs and had a hard time finding work. As a result, it is not uncommon to see gaps in employment on resumes and applications. Even if you have gaps in employment for reasons other than being laid off, it does not mean you have a strike against you in the job search. Just as with any other blemish in your work history, use the gap to show something positive.

For example, many parents take a few years off when raising young children. When reentering the workforce after a long gap used to care for children, do not hesitate to mention the other ways you used your time. Volunteering in your child’s school, organizing a fundraiser or managing carpool are all activities that use skills relevant to a job. And let’s not forget that the effort to manage children’s schedule is a job in and of itself. The same is true for any gap involving caring for a family member.

Gaps in employment may also be caused by searching for work in a bad economy, and most interviewers will see this as a viable reason for for an employment gap. Even time off to travel or to focus on an activity can be a plus in an interview and give you an interesting story to tell.

If your gap in employment was for health reasons, remember that you do not need to disclose details about your diagnosis or treatment. Simply stating that you took time off for health reasons is sufficient.


Another tricky thing in an interview is addressing a termination. Just as with the other blemishes we spoke of, take the opportunity to show how you have learned and grown from the experience. Explain what you are doing differently now so that you can ensure an employer that whatever the reason is for termination was before will not be an issue in a new job. For example, if you were fired for attendance issues, explain how you have addressed what was causing the problem. You might say, “I had a hard time getting to that job because my car broke down regularly, which interfered with my ability to arrive on time. I have since bought a new car, so I no longer have issues with reliable transportation.”

Avoid using this question as a chance to badmouth a former employer or a horrible boss. Doing so in an interview may leave the interviewer wondering if the issue was really with the employer or if it was with you. While it is true your boss may have been a horrible person, it is not necessary to go into that in an interview.

This is another area where honesty is important. It would be better to take control of how the story of your termination is told rather than lying and having a potential employer find out by checking references.

Focus on Your Accomplishments

Remember that the story you tell about your work experience should focus on your accomplishments. Convictions, gaps and terminations are only a small piece of the story. Be confident in drawing an interviewer's attention to the good things on your application because that will ultimately be the impression you leave them with. Your accomplishments can include a variety of things like work achievements, school, volunteering and anything that demonstrates your readiness for the job.

Finally, remember to make a good impression. This includes dressing for the job you want and not just throwing on jeans and a T-shirt. Even if you are interviewing for a retail or warehouse job, dress up and look professional. Speak professionally and confidentially, and do not be distracted by your cell phone. All of these things help counter any negative impression the blemishes in your work history might make.

This post originally appeared on HR Hammer.