What it really means to find work with a criminal record in SA

Background checks will reveal your criminal record (Shutterstock)

Committed a crime? Your record may carry a heavy cost for years to come.

If you’ve ever been charged with a crime and found guilty and sentenced, you will have a criminal record. Even paying an admittance of guilt fine will result in a record. Crimes can range from serious such as robbery to minor such as defamation of character. But every record carries a heavy cost for years to come.

We spoke to Ryan*, who was arrested for possession of methamphetamines in 2010. He appeared in court and paid a fine upon his conviction, which landed him with a criminal record that will last until 2020.

Back then Ryan worked in the IT department of a large media company. He says he was lucky to be able to call his manager at the time, confess his addiction and ask for help. Thanks to this support Ryan attended rehab and returned to his workplace one month later. His colleagues and managers where supportive and he is still clean today.

However, his criminal record still haunts him.

In 2014 Ryan was ready to move on and began looking for a new job. “I did not tell the recruitment agent that I have a record nor did I tell the prospective employer. This was a mistake, however.” He shared with us. 

On my first day I had to fill in a bunch of forms and the first or second question was ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ Answering this was quite simple for me, I had not disclosed this information, but lying is something I was not willing to do. This was incredibly stressful as I had no idea if they were going to retract the offer of employment, or what they are going to do.  So I went from a stable job to not knowing if I would stay employed.  At this point in time, I had a significant amount of debt, so having a job was pretty important.”

Ryan says he thinks he was very lucky. “My employer kept me employed, but after that experience, I figured if the employer knows that I have a criminal record there would be no surprise to any parties, and with each interview that I went to I would bring it up in the conversation as soon as possible.”  

In South Africa employers can use their discretion when hiring, but are advised to investigate the nature of the crime before dismissing an applicant as unsuitable, as some crimes will have no bearing on the responsibilities of the job.

Ryan suggests that interviewees with a criminal record bring this up as soon as possible in an interview situation. He says he starts by asking to discuss an uncomfortable subject because he doesn't want to waste anyone’s time. 

He feels it is better to be honest and upfront. Often a recruitment agent might not do a thorough background check, leaving the employer with a surprise once they’ve already hired you. Not all companies will be as accepting of this lapse of information sharing.

I have only gone to one interview where I did not get the job, and they did not tell me why.  I am still not sure if there was a technical reason or if it was because of my background” he told us. “Another company hired me on a three month contract, because of my record they did not want to give me a permanent position. After the first three months I was rehired for another three months, but I did not enjoy that instability, so I moved on.”

The next company also imposed conditions on Ryan’s employment, setting him a six month probation period. After the six months were up Ryan was employed full-time.

So while he says he was never been asked about a criminal record in an interview, he has also never left an interview without having disclosed his history.  “Most of the times the employers really appreciated me being honest, and I think respected me because of that” he told us.

Ryan is currently working to get his record expunged. In South Africa, some criminal records are removed from the record after a certain period of time, and in some cases one can request that this happens before the time is up.

Not everyone is as lucky as Ryan, and the nature of the crime will certainly impact your job prospects.

We spoke to Simon*, who told us that in 2011 he was involved in an argument which ended in a fight. He was charged with verbal assault and handed a fine of R150. Simon did not then know that paying the fine is akin to admitting to guilt, so when he applied for Professional Driving Permit two years later, to advance his career as a medical services driver, he was shocked when he was denied the permit. He’s applied five times since then, and each time been turned away. After 15 years as a Paramedic he is now unemployed. 

We also spoke to Mike* who shares that his experience has mostly been negative. Charged with theft and violence almost 20 years ago, Mike has since struggled to leave this shadow behind. The case is still running, and as such he cannot apply to have his record cleared.

He spent 7 months of a 5 year sentence in prison for obstruction of justice, followed by another 18 months for a conviction for theft and violence. Here he discovered that the cells are filled with repeat offenders who struggle to find work once they leave.

Mike was briefly hired by one large government agency, only to be asked to apply elsewhere once his record came to light. His next stint of employment was marred by accusations of nepotism and rejection by his colleagues who heard of his criminal past and wanted nothing to do with him.

These days Mike works odd jobs, putting his mechanical skills to use helping friends and neighbours where possible. He is not paid what he is worth and life is not easy for him. He told us that he believes a criminal without qualifications doesn’t stand a chance in the workforce. “Only those with qualifications and a clean slate can move on from their criminal past” he says.

Jacob* told us that despite the fact that he has never been tried or convicted in a Court of Law or served time he cannot secure a job and provide for his family. In 1995 Jacob was caught selling liquor without a license. He explains that it was a misunderstanding, but because the guilty party paid the fine on his behalf he was unwittingly pegged with a criminal record.  Like Simon, he only discovered this fact years later when he too applied for his Professional Driving Permit. Jacob was lucky in that the permit was granted as his crime was deemed “not too serious”. Despite this permit, companies are reluctant to hire him due to his record and Jacob is currently unemployed.

This raises the importance of the option of an expungement.

In 2009 the South African Justice Department implemented a law to help those who wanted their criminal records cleared to make applying for jobs easier, and to assist anyone convicted of apartheid era crimes who still had a record. The procedure results in the lawful removal of a criminal record on an individual's record from the National Criminal Register.

Anyone wanting to know more about this procedure can learn more here.

In short, it appears that honesty is the best policy, and applying for an expungement as soon as possible are the two best ways to handle having a criminal record. Find out how, here.  

*Names changed