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Background checks for employment – a small business guide

4-minute read

Background check for employment
Rosanna Parrish

Rosanna Parrish

3 August 2023

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Taking the big step to grow your business and hire new employees can be difficult. From attracting the right candidates to managing the onboarding process, there’s a lot to think about.

Despite the many benefits of growing your team, it can always feel like a risk when you bring on someone new. Background checks can be a great way to ease those fears and make sure you’re bringing the right people into the fold.

But from health checks for trades to criminal background checks, what are the types of checks you can request? And when are they a legal requirement? Read on to find out more.

What is a background check?

A background check is used to make sure an individual is the right fit for the role – and won’t cause a risk to the business. Background checks are part of your due diligence as an employer, so it’s important to make sure the right checks are completed before you fully onboard a new member of staff.

Almost all roles now need some form of background check. Depending on the role, this could be anything from a criminal background check to double checking an employee reference. Specific roles, such as drivers, may also need certain health checks, which can protect both the employer and the employee.

You’ll usually complete a background check towards the end of the onboarding process. However, you might choose to do this before you’ve even offered the role.

Keep reading to learn about the different types of UK background checks and what you’ll learn from them.

What does a background check show?

Background checks can reveal many things. Below we’ve listed some of the types of background checks you can complete as an employer in the UK.

Right to work checks

One of the first things you need to check is that your candidates have the right to work in the UK. As an employer, you have a legal responsibility to prevent anyone from working illegally in the country.

You’ll need to check your applicant’s original documents – preferably in person. For British and Irish citizens, you can also use an identity service provider to check their right to work. For non-British and non-Irish citizens, you’ll need to complete a Home Office online right to work check.

It’s important to complete this step as you can be fined if you can’t prove you checked an employee’s right to work in the UK. Find out more about completing a right to work check in our detailed guide.

Employee reference checks

Most employers also choose to check employee references. These checks are a great way to make sure potential employees aren’t exaggerating their skills or employment history.

You can ask your candidate to supply references during the application process, but it’s not a legal requirement for a previous employer to provide one. These references can be long and detailed, or very short. If a former employer is obligated to provide a reference, the only details it needs to include are:

  • job title
  • salary
  • dates of employment

You can also request checks into an employee’s education history or check previous payroll data to make sure you have accurate salary information.

Find out more about employee references in our guide.

Criminal record checks

Probably the most known form of background check is the criminal record check – also known as the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. You can ask your candidate to apply for their own DBS check or arrange it through your company.

There are different levels of DBS checks available, which will depend on the industry you work in. A basic DBS check will include any spent convictions, but standard and enhanced checks will also cover things such as cautions and warnings.

You can check which type of DBS check is right for your company on the government website. If your employee will be working with vulnerable people or children, you’ll need a more detailed check. It’s important to note that, in many industries, you can’t refuse someone a job because of spent convictions.

DVLA checks

DVLA checks are for any roles that involve driving. It checks that your applicant has a valid driving licence for the types of vehicles they’ll work with – such as HVGs. You can also see if your employee has points on their licence.

If you do work with vehicles, it’s important to make sure that you and your team are properly insured.

Health checks

You can only request a health check for certain roles in the UK. For example, if you’re employing a new driver for your commercial vehicle, it’s a legal requirement for them to complete an eye test. This protects both your employee, your business, and the public.

Sometimes you may need to request a health check on a new employee for insurance purposes. Speak with your insurance provider or a legal professional to check when you can request a health check.

You’ll need to get consent from your candidate in order to run a health check on them. It’s also important to note that you can’t use a health check to discriminate against any groups of people. You’ll need a good reason to revoke a job offer after reviewing a health check – such as a failed eye test.

How long does a background check take?

The amount of time it takes to wait for the results of a background check can vary depending on the specific check. The more detailed the check, the longer it will take to complete.

Things that can delay a background check include:

  • multiple residencies
  • living or working abroad
  • lack of paper trail

For criminal background checks, the government advises that basic checks can take up to 14 days, whilst more detailed checks can take up to eight weeks. Make sure you factor these times into your onboarding plan when hiring a new employee.

Social media background check

Another way to vet any potential employees is with a social media background check. This is something you can do yourself and is legal – as long as you do it with caution.

Checking a candidate’s social media presence can help you see them in a way they may not have presented in a job interview. Checking their social media posts can reveal types of behaviour such as illegal and unlawful activities, sexism, racism, or abuse.

However, social media checks may also reveal protected class information – which can’t be used as a basis for making your hiring decision as part of the Equality Act 2010. Protected characteristics include:

  • age
  • gender
  • religion
  • skin colour
  • race
  • sexual orientation
  • citizenship

If you want to complete a social media background check without the risk of seeing any protected characteristics, you can hire a professional third party to do the check for you. This allows you to get an idea of how your candidate presents themselves online whilst making sure that any protected information is filtered out.

What background checks do you use as part of your recruitment process? Let us know in the comments below.

More recruitment guides for small businesses

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Photo: Dorde/
Rosanna Parrish

Written by

Rosanna Parrish

​​Rosanna Parrish is a Copywriter at Simply Business, specialising in legal and HR content. Trained at London College of Communication, she has been creating content professionally for eight years at publications across the UK and Spain. Starting her career in health insurance, she also worked in education marketing before returning to the insurance world. Rosanna also writes about wellbeing in the workplace. She lives by the sea and does her best writing in coffee shops.

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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