“I have a (DUI, assault charge, lost my license, etc.) in my background. Can I still get hired, and if so how do I get past it?”
This is a tough question, but a very good one.
The first thing to know is that time is important. The more time you have between you and whatever legal infraction you have in your past, the better.
Trust me, everyone on that panel and every career firefighter I know has done things they're not proud of. They also understand that when we're young we tend to do stupid things. It's OK, we all make mistakes.
If you do have a blemish on your background, but are still invited to the later stages of the hiring process (psychological exam, panel interview, etc.) that is a great sign. This means that they are at least willing to accept that you have made some mistakes and may still hire you.
However, it goes without saying that this doesn't look good on your background check and in your interview. Also, it's important to note that if you have any kind of mark on your background check, they will know about it.
Now is where your work begins.
Own your past
First, if you are going through the interview, and have not been asked about it, don’t bring it up. You may feel as though you are hiding something, but the truth is you aren't.
If they have done a background check on you (which they surely have), they are already aware. There is no sense reminding them about it.
Remember, your single objective in the interview is to make yourself look and sound like the best candidate for their department. Bringing up something negative from your past that they already know about doesn't help you achieve that goal.
There are people out there who when questioned about something in their past, they will lie about it. If you are caught lying during an interview, or any stage of the hiring process, you are done. Your chances of getting hired are essentially zero.
As I said earlier, everyone has made mistakes and any reasonable person on that hiring panel will understand that.
You must take absolute ownership for the mistake you made. Responsibility and accountability are two pillars of the fire service.
If you try to pass the blame for a mistake you made, you've essentially killed your chances of getting past the interview.
The questions you will need to answer are what have you done to show that you have learned from your mistake, and what strides have you taken to make sure you never repeat that behavior.
Words hold no sway; action is king.
Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone can demonstrate that they have truly changed. That will be the key between getting hired and getting passed over for the job.
Here's an example. Let's say you’re 26, but you got a DUI when you were 21. It's been five years. That's a pretty good amount of time, and that's definitely in your favor.
Now, what have you done?
Maybe that impacted you so much you quit drinking and haven't had a drink since — perfect. Maybe you do some sort of volunteering to help victims of drunk drivers — that'd be great, too.
Somehow, you have to articulate actions that you have taken to show you learned. A simple, "It was bad, so I don't drink and drive anymore," doesn't really hold a lot of weight.
Admit the mistake, own the mistake and show what actions you have taken since, and you will be well on your way of getting past this major hurdle. At the very least, you will have earned the respect of those interviewing you even if you don’t get hired at that department.
If you need more help on preparing for your interview, or you aren’t sure what to expect, download our free cheat sheet on what types of questions you can expect and key principles to keep in mind when answering.