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Assisting Justice Involved Veterans with Interviewing Preparation

When looking to enter into or start a new position in the job market, it is important to have a game plan. Such preparation may be even more important for veterans who have been involved in the criminal justice system, also known as Justice-Involved Veterans (JIVs). In this article, we introduce a number of useful tips that Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program specialists (DVOPs) can consider as they help prepare JIVs to enter into the workforce.

Prepare

DVOPs can help prepare a JIV to enter into the workforce by assisting them with cultivating a winning strategy to secure meaningful employment. To do this, they can help the JIV practice articulating why they believe that they are the best candidate for a particular job, how their skills make them well suited for the position, and why they are a valuable asset to the employer.

Second, there are various programs that aid the JIV population in their preparation for entering the workforce. In fact, the United States Department of Labor awarded grants to promising practice programs that offer offenders preparation support to their participants. DVOPs can conduct research on such programs and offer them as aids for the JIV they are assisting.

One program in the Texas correctional system, Project Re-Enterprise, has been successful in connecting with the business community to provide inmates with mock job interviews and job interview skills training. Additionally, the About Face vocational program was developed to assist veterans with a felony find employment by improving interview skills and discussing how to present criminal history information (LePage et al., 2013).

Dawson (2017) investigated the perspective of JIVs regarding such preparation programs. Veterans reported they were “Learning how to interview properly and to be able to put my thoughts in a more organized way and be prepared to answer difficult questions or tricky questions during an interview.” Others said they learned “How to have an interview…and not skirt around the issue…that I had a criminal history, but how to divulge that history without automatically shooting myself in the foot because that’s very difficult for a felon to do…to explain his past history, yet at the same time try and make himself sound employable.”
Another key element of preparation is to assist the veteran with reviewing and ensuring their Record of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP) sheet is accurate. It is not uncommon for RAP sheets to have errors that can reflect negatively on a JIV. During the hiring process, an employer may conduct a criminal background check, where a veteran’s RAP sheet will be visible. It is important to make sure that it is accurate and updated if necessary.

There is evidence that offenders who participated in prison work assignments were more likely to find employment, work more hours, and earn higher wages than offenders who did not (Duwe and Clark 2017). If a veteran learned skills while in prison, the JIV should prepare their presentation to employers and talk about the learned skills in a positive light. For example, if the JIV was assigned to a painting crew, they can write about how they learned painting skills and learned to recognize when to use enamel versus water-based paints, how to prepare surfaces, and how to paint tall structures. Of course, if they were applying for a computer repair position, painting skills might not be relevant. However, the critical thinking and decision-making skills needed to learn to paint are likely relevant. This experience can be leveraged to indicate the veteran has these valuable soft skills.

Research

It is critical that JIVs conduct adequate research when searching for jobs and preparing for interviews. They should read about any company they are interested in applying to in order to learn about its mission and see how it aligns with their work and military experiences. Additionally, a job description holds a lot of valuable information, and is critical for the veteran to review and become very familiar with when preparing for an interview. Performing both of these steps will help the veteran feel more prepared and less stressed when entering into an already stressful job interview process.
In addition to researching companies and positions of interest, it is important to know what incentives might be offered to the potential employer. Companies who hire JIVs may be eligible for hiring incentives such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). WOTC is a federal tax credit available to employers that hire individuals from specific targeted groups who have consistently faced significant employment barriers. Among these targeted groups are “qualified ex-felons” who are defined as individuals hired within a year of being convicted or released from prison. A JIV should also be helped by a DVOP specialist to become familiar with the federal bonding program (FBP), its requirements for jobs, how to present this program during an interview, and how to answer employer questions. The FBP, a unique hiring incentive tool, targets individuals whose backgrounds can pose significant barriers to securing or retaining employment. It is an insurance policy that protects the employee-employer relationship against employee acts of dishonesty, such as larceny, embezzlement, and theft. The fidelity bond is commonly secured through the American Job Center, is offered at no cost for an initial six- month period.

Practice

A JIV should practice their interviewing skills with a friend, family member, career coach, a staff member leading an American Job Center class on interviewing, or through online mock interview websites. Practice might begin with having the veteran come up with a short story that describes their assets. Interview rehearsal is strengthened by corrective feedback provided by a career coach. Practice should include making eye contact with the interviewer, sending correct non-verbal cues, such as leaning toward the interview or making eye contact and appropriate gestures when making a point, asking insightful questions, paraphrasing employer statements to clarify information, etc. (Hartholt et al 2019).

An employer does not need to know an applicant’s entire incarceration experience. The veteran should answer questions on criminal history and period of incarceration with the facts. Also, they should talk about any lessons learned, education courses, and training classes they took, including jobs held while incarcerated to share evidence of rehabilitation activities and work experience relevant to the job being sought. The JIV applicant should highlight military training completed prior to incarceration as well as jobs held prior to incarceration.

A JIV should acknowledge any concerns the interviewer has about hiring someone involved with the justice system and allay those fears by their commitment to employment, the changes they’ve made to reintegrate into society, and by presenting available resources like the programs discussed above. JIVs should emphasize their desire to lead a productive life and that time in prison is behind them with the debt to society paid.

Many employers consider time management and teamwork skills as important as well as how someone works in a team environment. If the JIV learns best from constructive supervisor feedback, the candidate should describe how they listen and adjust their performance based on suggestions. Employers want applicants with strong soft skills. If the JIV is flexible and can readily adapt to changing job requirements, they should note these to the interviewer. If the applicant is a good problem solver, they should share an example of when they’ve used this skill with the interviewer.

Reminders for the JIV Jobseeker:

  • Turn off your cell phone or any other device and put it away before entering the room.
  • Greet your interviewer with a smile.
  • Make frequent eye contact with your interviewer.
  • Avoid slouching or sitting with your arms crossed at your chest.
  • Listen to your interviewer when they talk and do not interrupt; nod as appropriate to indicate that you are listening.
  • Speak clearly and take your time when answering questions. If you need time to think, take a deep breath or say something like, "That is a great question, and I'd like to really give it some thought. If you don't mind, I'll take just a few seconds to gather my thoughts."
  • Bring at least two copies of your resume.

Deliver

An applicant’s appearance can be a significant factor in the first impression they make to others. The veteran should work with their career coach to plan what they will wear to an interview by carefully considering the position they are applying for. While a business suit is appropriate for an office job, it may not be necessary for construction work. Regardless of the job, help the veteran present themselves professionally by choosing conservative clothes that fit well and are wrinkle-free.  

Follow-up
 
After a job interview, the veteran may experience an emotional reaction to the event. Their career coach should check-in to discuss the experience, help the veteran learn from any possible missteps, and offer support. It is often beneficial to frame the event as a learning experience and identify relevant goals going forward to improve interview performance. The JIV should follow-up after the interview with an email thanking the interviewer for the opportunity and providing a chance for more questions and follow-up conversation. They might also consider offering three points about their suitability and fit for the position. It is recommended to have the career coach read this follow-up before sending to the potential employer.

In conclusion, JIVs and their career coaches are advised to take a systematic approach to preparation for job interviews to improve interview skills, confidence, and success in securing competitive employment. The steps outlined in this article are only part of the entire job employment process. Other interventions not addressed include vocational assessment, job matching, informational interviews, job retention skills, and the like. WorkforceGPS offers a list of resources and tools regarding justice-involved individuals entering or returning to the workforce.  In addition, you can learn more about the steps needed to prepare justice involved veterans in NVTI’s class, 9610: Career Coaching for Special Populations: Justice Involved Veterans.

If you have any questions on this article or wish to include any additional information, please share your valuable experiences with others at Making Careers Happen for Veterans: Community of Practice.

References

Chaganti, Sara, Meschede, Tatjana and Routhier, Giselle. (2015). Job Readiness Training for Homeless Families: preparing for work to achieve housing stability, Brandeis University, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Institute on Assets and Social Policy. Downloaded 4/1/2021 from https://heller.brandeis.edu/iere/pdfs/housing/job-readiness-training.pdf
Dawson, James L., "Justice Involved Veterans’ Post-Release Employment-Related Experiences" (2017). Dissertations. 3113. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/3113
LePage, J. P., Lewis, A. A., Washington, E. L., Davis, B., & Glasgow, A. (2013). Effects of structured vocational services in ex-offender Veterans with mental illness: 6-month follow-up. Journal of Rehabilitative Research and Development, 50(2), 183-92.

Hartholt, Arno, Mozgai, Sharon, and Rizzo, Albert “Skipp”. (2019). Virtual Job Interviewing Practice for High-Anxiety Populations, IVA '19: Proceedings of the 19th ACM International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents, July, Pages 238–240.
McDonough, D. E., Blodgett, J. C., Midboe, A. M., & Blonigen, D. M. (2015). Justice-involved Veterans and employment: A systematic review of barriers and promising strategies and interventions. Menlo Park, CA: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Visher, C., Yahner, J., La Vigne, N. G. (2010). Life after prison: Tracking the experiences of male prisoners returning to Chicago, Cleveland, and Houston. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.
Webster, J.M., Staton-Trindall,M., Dickson, M.F., Wilson, J.F. and Leukefeld, C.G. (2014). Twelve-month employment intervention outcomes for drug-involved offenders, The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 40:3, 200-205.