Pursuing community work when you have a criminal record
‘Applicants must be willing to undergo a national police check as a condition of employment.’
You’ll see this note, or something similar, many times during your search on ACWA Job Central. Police and working with children checks are routine in the community service sector but present a problem for people with a criminal history. If this is you, you might be asking if there is any point in pursuing this career. In other words, can you be a community worker with a criminal record?
In many instances having a criminal record does not preclude you from working in the sector but you may have fewer employment options. If you are not already qualified, you should consider this information before enrolling in a course and spending hard-earned money. Be realistic about your chances of finding work post-study. It may be that you will be limited to specific service fields or find, in the worst-case scenario, that this isn’t the career for you. Police and working with children checks are in place in every state and territory and are designed to protect clients from potential risk of harm or exploitation.
What a security check reveals about you
A 'Name Only' national police check, the most common type, is a search of a person's name against the criminal history records held by police services Australia-wide. It will reveal all disclosable convictions, those where you have either been found guilty, or plead guilty. In some Australian jurisdictions these will be excluded or ‘spent’ after a set time and not released as part of this check. Not typically included, regardless of the timeframe, are charges that have been withdrawn by the police, overseas convictions, and infringements notices (such as parking fines) that do not go to court.
A working with children check (also known as a blue card or working with vulnerable people check) is an assessment of the risk of harm you pose to children if you engage in child-related work. It includes your police history as well as spent convictions, non-conviction charges, and pending charges.
For current information for each state and territory, visit the relevant government or police website. A simple internet search will take you there.
How employers will determine your suitability
Job ads and position descriptions will indicate if a security check is a condition of employment. Undergoing the screening is usually the last step in the hiring process, after you’ve been shortlisted based on your application and skills.
Workers who fail a working with children or vulnerable person check will be barred from certain roles without the possibility of discretion1. This means an employer will have no choice but to reject you for that job. Crimes involving sexual offences, for example, will disqualify you from employment in any jobs engaging with children, ruling out such fields as youth work, juvenile justice, and child protection.
The good news is that welfare agencies cannot simply refuse to hire a person based on a police check that reveals a criminal background. So if you have a criminal history you can only be rejected outright if you cannot perform the ‘inherent requirements’ of the position because of your criminal history2. These requirements, or essential duties, are set by the employer and can include the ability to work effectively in a team or to work safely.
If your history doesn’t plainly prevent you from doing the job, the organisation will decide your suitability by considering factors such as:
• The nature and seriousness of each offence
• The court outcome and penalties imposed
• Your age at the time
• How recently the offence was committed
• Evidence of multiple or repeated offences
• The surrounding circumstances
• Your attitude to your record
For the employer, this is about assessing the risk to both their clients and the organisation. They will consider your past behaviour as an indicator of how you are likely to act in the future, just as they do when considering your performance in previous job roles. For this reason, recent or multiple convictions will be harder to look past.
Nevertheless the sector, in general, understands the benefit of lived experience in service development and delivery3. If you have a drug conviction, for example, it may still possible to become a drug and alcohol worker. Likewise, a juvenile record would not necessarily prohibit you from becoming a youth worker, although there may be fewer employers willing to take you on.
How to handle your history during a job search
It is important to have a realistic expectation of your potential to gain employment in the field because finding a job in the community services sector will be more difficult if you have a criminal history. If you are intending to undertake a community services degree or diploma difficulties will begin when your education provider tries to secure a fieldwork placement for you and it will not automatically get easier once you graduate. Frontline roles are the most common for new workers and, as they involve direct contact with vulnerable clients, employers, under their duty of care, are cautious in their recruitment.
You do not have to volunteer information about your criminal record during a job interview4 but if you are asked it’s best to be open and honest. Refusing to answer a direct question or being deceptive will likely cost you the job. Take the opportunity to explain your background and why it shouldn't disqualify you from the role. This gives an employer more information upon which to make a decision.
Think about how best to present yourself. What steps have you taken to transform your life or make a positive impact since your conviction? Have you:
• Sought treatment or completed a rehabilitation program?
• Gained a new qualification?
• Volunteered in your community?
• Held steady employment?
• Experienced a change in life circumstances, for example, recovered from an addiction or overcome homelessness.
Ultimately, whether you find employment depends on the details of your record, the job you want, the employers you approach, and your ability to present yourself and your history. It is therefore difficult to give anything other than general advice. If you are still unsure about your specific history and don’t want to waste your time or money, particularly if you are considering enrolling in a course, then test the waters. Find a major employer and give them a call (anonymously if you prefer) and ask them about their policies in relation to your circumstances.
At the end of the day, we all make mistakes and deserve a chance to put our past behind us. The community services sector supports people to reach their potential and this is as true for aspiring workers as it is for clients.
1 Working with Children Check Report, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Commonwealth of Australia, 2015.
2 ‘Determining the inherent requirements of a job’, On the Record: Guidelines for the prevention of discrimination in employment on the basis of criminal record, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney, February 2012. pp. 14-19.
3 Including placing lived experience at the centre of policy and strategic reforms. Examples include: A national framework for recovery-oriented mental health services: Guide for practitioners and providers, Department of Health, Commonwealth of Australia, 2013.
4 ‘Recruitment’, On the Record: Guidelines for the prevention of discrimination in employment on the basis of criminal record, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney, February 2012. pp. 21-22.