An Employer’s Guide To UK Employee Background Checks

An employer ticking off a checklist of the employee background checks they will need to do

Employee background checks are a crucial part of validating a candidate’s information and confirming their suitability for the role.

Nearly 2 in 3 employers believe that candidates embellish their skills and credentials on their CVs, according to Monster’s Future of Work study. Gauging a candidate’s exact experience, skills, strengths, and weaknesses can be tricky to ascertain from CVs and interviews alone.

This guide will explore what employee background checks are in the UK, why they are necessary and the various checks available. We will also discuss the laws that surround them, so that you can undergo the process compliantly.

What are UK employee background checks?

An employee background check is a legal investigation into a potential employee. Although they are commonly referred to as ‘employee background checks’, you should take these precautionary steps when hiring contractors as well.

Pre-employment background checks are a crucial part of the recruitment or onboarding process. Checking their identity and references, and looking into education, employment history, etc. can validate that the candidate is who they say they are.

Depending on the role there will be different checks to make. If you’re recruiting for a leadership position like a CTO, you’ll need to do more checks than an entry-level position. Highly technical and senior positions will mean an individual has more responsibilities and autonomy and will be paid a higher salary and have a longer notice period to reflect that seniority. This means that doing your due diligence and completing your employee background checks is vital, as without them you could hire someone who could do damage to your company.

Furthermore, certain checks such as the ‘Right to Work’ are a legal requirement in the UK, and thus have to always be completed. Other common checks include reference and DBS checks that would confirm employment history and suitability for the role, and potentially reveal information on a criminal record that could pose a risk to the company. For instance, if the individual is working with vulnerable groups, a DBS would be required as standard.

FAQ about employment background checks

Why conduct background checks on employees?

Employee background checks are a vital part of the hiring process. These are some of the core reasons why making these screening checks before offering a candidate the job or during onboarding is important:

  • Legal due diligence

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to check that new hires are legally entitled to work for you. By completing the Right to Work and other industry-specific checks during the hiring or onboarding process, you are acting compliantly. If you fail to conduct these checks could result in heavy fines.

  • Mitigating risk to other employees

An employee background check via a DBS, references, or even their social media can identify individuals who may pose a threat to the workplace. Either from bullying, acts of violence, discrimination, or hate speech.

  • Data security

If you are looking to hire an IT professional, the individual may be handling confidential or sensitive data. Employee background checks can ensure that the person you are hiring is trustworthy and won’t damage your company through data theft or loss. Furthermore, if the individual is working with investors or company finances, a background check will ensure they don’t have a history of fraud or embezzlement that might prove to be a risk to your company.

  • Dishonesty from candidates

Employee background checks can spot if there are any inconsistencies in a candidate’s experience or qualifications and ensure that you are avoiding hiring someone who is underqualified or inexperienced.

What screening checks do employers use in the UK?

A number of pre-employment background checks are common practice, whilst others are only conducted in certain industries:

  • Right to Work
  • Criminal record (DBS check)
  • Employment history
  • Reference check
  • Education history
  • DVLA check
  • Credit check
  • Drug testing
  • Medical records
  • Social media

These employee background checks verify an individual’s right to work and can often corroborate what they have said at the interview stage or on their CV.

Investigations into credit history can be important depending on the job and industry. For instance, in the UK, a professional in the finance sector cannot continue to work if they are declared bankrupt.

Social media checks can be a useful tool during pre-employment background checks and can reveal information you could not get through an interview. It can point out issues that may make the candidate unsuitable, such as posting about illegal activity, hate speech, or otherwise. This is especially important for individuals that are placed in a position of power in a company.

How long do employee background checks take?

This will depend entirely on which pre-employment background checks you are wanting to undertake. Typically, most checks should take between 2 to 5 business days but some checks such as an enhanced DBS can take up to 8 weeks. A reference check, on the other hand, is dependent on a previous company answering your questions so can take an indeterminate amount of time.

Consequently, it is understandable if you want to choose to skip some checks that are not required by law, however, doing so could leave you open to risk in the future.

Laws surrounding pre-employment background checks

Obtaining sensitive information

The laws in the UK regarding which checks are allowed are quite specific.

As an employer, you need to only request checks into what is relevant to the job. You must obtain the candidate’s consent before undergoing background checks (apart from social media checks which are in the public domain). Consequently, whatever information you have collected has to be available to the potential new hire if requested. Furthermore, if you unfairly discriminate against an individual based on the information you have found on them, there could be legal repercussions.

Moreover, as this is considered personal information you need to store the information compliant with GDPR.

Potential discrimination

  • Medical records – You can only request medical records if it is essential to the job. For example, an eye test for a lorry driving role is acceptable.
  • Date of birth – You cannot require someone to provide information on their age, unless it is relevant to carry out the role, such as being over 16 to serve alcohol in a restaurant.
  • Spent convictions – Spent convictions will not show up on a basic DBS check. These convictions will have already been served and an amount of time has passed which means they no longer show on an individual’s record. An advanced DBS check will more extensive information on criminal convictions and cautions. However, businesses are only allowed to refuse a job to someone if it makes them unsuitable for the role. For example, someone who was previously convicted of assault applying to work with vulnerable people.

Additional advice when undertaking background checks on employees

  • Be consistent with which employee background checks you do. Performing certain checks on some candidates and not others based on the candidate’s background or identity could open you up to potential discrimination claims.
  • If you wish to carry out the checks yourself, we would recommend you talk to a lawyer to make sure you are obtaining and storing information in a legal way.
  • Use a recruitment agency. Agencies are well equipped and knowledgeable of which employment background checks you need to make and how to perform them compliantly. Trusting a recruitment agency to carry out some of the checks, ensures that they are completed legally and without you having to take too much time out to do it.


For more help and advice on hiring a tech professional compliantly, contact us today.

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