The easy guide to employee background checks in the UK


May 3, 2023

Hiring employees in the UK? Before you onboard a new employee, it’s crucial to run a background check on them. Not only does this ensure your new hire is truly the most qualified person for the job, but it might even protect you and your workers against criminal behavior.

However, the rules surrounding background checks differ from country to country. Companies based outside the UK might find the process more complex than they thought. You need to understand what’s allowed under UK labor laws, as well as the different types of Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) the UK government permits, as well as what you’re allowed to check, how to do so, and how you’re obligated to handle and store sensitive data.

This step-by-step guide will help you run legally compliant criminal record checks and other types of background checks when you’re hiring employees in the UK.

Table of Contents

  • Are you legally required to run background checks on UK employees?
  • Is it legal to run background checks on UK contractors?
  • What types of background checks do businesses commonly run on UK employees and contractors?
  • What types of background checks are illegal in the UK?
  • When should you conduct UK employee background checks?
  • The easiest way to run a background check on a British employee or contractor
  • Background check mistakes to avoid in the UK
  • Frequently asked questions about background checks in the UK

Are you legally required to run background checks on UK employees?

Yes. In 2008, the UK government passed the Employment Background Check Act which requires employers to conduct criminal record checks, reference checks, and even credit checks before they start the onboarding process.

Employers are allowed to request information that will help them conduct a thorough background screening process. In addition to the checks listed above, it’s crucial to ensure the employee has the right to work in the UK (i.e. that they are not there illegally) and to check their financial, health, and education history.

Before you start the background screening process, you must obtain consent from the employee. Additionally, their data must be stored securely, and you must allow the employee to view their data if they ask. Finally, you are not allowed to request information that’s outside the scope of the background check the UK government permits, and all information provided to you is confidential.

Is it legal to run pre-employment screening checks on UK contractors?

Yes, it’s legal—and a common practice—to run background checks on independent contractors in the UK, although these screening processes often aren’t quite as extensive as those people classified as employees go through.

What types of background checks do businesses commonly run on UK employees and contractors?

Common background checks

Less common background checks

Criminal record (AKA DBS check)

Drug testing

Employment history

Social media profiles (depends on role)

Reference check

Driving records (depends on role)

Right to Work

Medical records (depends on role)

Education history/references

Credit check (depends on role)

UK/international sanctions

DVLA checks

Here’s each type of check in more detail:

  • Criminal record. To perform a criminal background check, request a DBS check from the Disclosure and Barring Service.
  • Employment history. It’s a good idea to reach out to the HR or payroll departments of the employee’s previous company to verify their dates of employment, salary, and reason for leaving.
  • Reference check. You may contact any of the employment references the new hire provides to get more information about them and determine if they’d be a good fit and if their employment history is accurate.
  • Right to Work. Make sure the new hire has the right to work in the UK. They can prove this by showing you their British or Irish passport (either current or expired is fine), by giving you a copy of their Irish or British birth certificate, or by giving you a certificate showing they are a naturalized British citizen.
  • Education history/references. Employers may reach out to a potential employee’s high school, university, or college to confirm their education credentials and skills are legitimate.
  • UK/International sanctions. Make sure the potential employee is not on either the UK or the International Sanctions list. Both are published lists that detail the names, passport numbers, and other information of those individuals who are in hot water with the government. This is particularly relevant if you’re hiring someone for work in the financial or shipping sectors.
  • Drug testing. While drug testing is highly uncommon in the UK, it can be performed in instances where working under the influence would pose a safety risk to both the employee and those around them.
  • Social media profiles. Depending on the new hire’s role, employers are permitted to comb through a new hire’s social media accounts to look for illegal or violent behavior that may pose a threat in the workplace. However, social media checks must be entirely transparent.
  • Driving records. Reach out to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to make sure a person is who they say they are. Note that employers are only permitted to take a look at a potential hire’s driving records through the DVLA if their role will require them to drive.
  • Medical records. While you cannot discriminate against an employee based on their medical records, in some instances, you are legally required to take a look at their health history, such as if they’ll be operating heavy machinery or driving a commercial truck, or if they’ll be working for you as a courier. You must have written consent from the new hire’s doctor before diving into their medical background.
  • Credit check. Credit checks are mostly limited to people working in the financial sector or if they’ll be working in a role that requires financial duties.

What types of background checks are illegal in the UK?

  • Questions about health or disability. Pre-employment screenings can only ask about someone’s medical records if it’s either legally required (for example, if they’ll be driving a commercial vehicle) or if it’s required to perform their job (for instance, insurance companies require businesses to run health checks on couriers). And, the only time you’re allowed to ask someone about their disability is if you’re intending to use it, as the UK government phrases it, for “positive action” (i.e. you’re actively looking to include more disabled persons in the workplace to increase diversity/reduce discrimination). You are permitted to choose a disabled employee over an abled-bodied one if both are qualified for the job.
  • Asking someone for their date of birth. You’re legally prohibited from asking someone to provide their DOB if the job requires them to be a certain age to perform the necessary tasks. For instance, teenagers who are 16 or 17 can only serve alcohol if the manager approves it.
  • Asking the applicant about spent criminal convictions during the pre-screening process. Before you request a DBS check on an employee, particularly one with spent convictions, make sure you’re eligible to do so. If you’re ineligible, you cannot discriminate against someone simply because they have spent convictions.

Furthermore, you are not allowed to discriminate against someone if they fall due to any “protected characteristics.” We’ll discuss these further in the FAQ section. For now, what’s important to keep in mind is that if you are proven to be discriminating against certain potential employees, they can take legal action against you.

When should you conduct UK employment background checks?

In the UK, employers are legally required to conduct background checks. They can do this either before they send out an official contract of employment or once you’ve started the onboarding process. Whichever option they choose, when you’re asked to fill out a pre-employment screening, be honest: Omitting certain information will almost surely damage your reputation, and the employer will likely revoke their offer.

The easiest way to run a background check on a UK employee or contractor

Although you can run a background check yourself, UK laws are complicated and require a significant time investment as well as detailed knowledge of how to navigate UK databases and of the differences between, say, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, the FCA check, and more.

Rather than deal with this headache yourself and risk non-compliance, or having to put off the onboarding process because you’re having difficulty understanding what you need to do, it’s best to hire a knowledgeable third party.

Several different companies can run background checks on potential employees in the UK, including Rippling, HireRight, and BackCheck.

The easiest by far is Rippling because background checks are directly integrated into the onboarding flow. Just enter basic hiring info like salary and start date, and Rippling does the rest:

…and everything else they need from day one. See Rippling today.

Remember, the employer needs consent to conduct a background check. After they notify the prospective employee, they’ll ask for agreement in writing.

Background check mistakes to avoid in the UK

  • Assuming background checks in the UK are the same throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The background check process between the US and the UK is quite different, but there’s another pitfall to be aware of. For example, the tools for performing the DBS check in England and Wales differ from those used in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Collecting too much data. You cannot collect more than the information required to run the background check. Employers are limited to asking potential employees to fill out only what is needed in the disclosure forms. You may not ask for additional information “just in case.”
  • Not getting employee consent. UK law mandates that employees consent to background checks and that the employer permits them to access their data upon request at any point in time.
  • Asking potential employees about criminal record information they don’t need to disclose. It’s crucial to understand the (somewhat confusing) UK laws that govern what employees must and do not have to disclose to a potential employer. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) not only prevents those who committed minor crimes from being discriminated against, but it also prevents employers from being allowed to ask these individuals about spent convictions. Non-compliance with the ROA could land you in hot water, and you may find yourself facing legal repercussions.
  • Not understanding what you can and can’t use on social media. While it’s perfectly fine to look at a potential hire’s social media account (and many employers do), be careful: You are not allowed to use certain information you find on a candidate’s social media profile to deny them the job. The only information you can use is relevant to the role they’ll fulfill, and be careful of violating discrimination laws. You can be sued if it’s proven you discriminated against a potential employee based on their social media.
  • Skipping the background check. Due to the time investment and the complexity of UK labor laws, you might be tempted to simply forgo the background check altogether to keep the hiring process running smoothly. However, this is a mistake: The UK requires you to investigate the employee’s right to work, their criminal record, their employment history, and other relevant information. If you don’t, you run the risk of exposing yourself and your team to legal issues and even an unsafe environment.

Rippling makes it easy to run background checks in the United Kingdom.

Frequently asked questions about background checks in the UK

Are background checks legal in the UK?

Yes, background checks are not only legal in the UK, but employers are required to conduct them.

What language do you use for background checks in the UK?

Background screening processes will be conducted in the official language of the UK: English.

What are the “protected characteristics” in the UK?

Protected characteristics include age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, disability, pregnancy and maternity, and marriage and civil partnerships. You may not discriminate against potential hires for any of these.

What is the DBS, and how far back can criminal background checks go?

Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward answer to how far back employers can go when running a criminal background check and investigating your right to work.

Rather, UK employers use Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks. This agency keeps detailed records of individuals’ criminal histories. DBS checks come in four different types:

  • Basic check. This check shows “unspent convictions” (i.e. convictions that have not yet reached the point where they can be wiped from your record) and conditional cautions, which are alternatives to being prosecuted for a low-level crime.
  • Standard check. This check will show both “spent” (i.e. convictions that have reached the point where they can be removed from an individual’s record) and unspent convictions. It provides a more comprehensive look at an individual’s criminal history and includes official reprimands and final warnings.
  • Enhanced check. This is a standard check that is bolstered by any information the police might deem relevant for the employer to know about a potential hire.
  • Enhanced check with barred list. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It contains all the same elements as the enhanced check with one major addition: It demonstrates whether you’ve been legally barred from being able to fulfill the role you applied for.

Mostly, employees cannot apply for DBS checks themselves. And, unfortunately, the Disclosure and Barring Service is pretty vague about when an employee needs to tell an employer about their criminal record during the pre-screening process. The only thing they’re clear about, in fact, is that employers must check to see if they’re eligible to ask about spent convictions.

What is an FCA check?

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) requires employers in certain sectors to be sure employees are honest, have integrity, and live up to their reputation. These sectors include:

  • Financial investment organizations
  • Insurance companies
  • Consumer credit companies
  • E-money companies
  • Co-operative societies

In addition to the standard criminal, identity, right to work, employment, and educational checks, the FCA also mandates employers make sure the individual does not have any UK or international sanctions, that they are solvent and have not filed for bankruptcy, and that they pass the Financial Services Register Check.

What are the benefits of running background checks in the UK?

Background checks come with many benefits for employers, including:

  • Enhanced security. Conducting a background check on each employee ensures a safe work environment for the company and its employees because it can filter out job applicants who pose a threat or who would do harm to a company’s workers or reputation.
  • Protection against hiring illegal workers. If your employees don’t have the right to work in the UK, you can be fined up to 20,000 GBP.
  • Protection from occupational fraud. By avoiding hiring dishonest, unqualified job seekers, you’re protecting your company’s reputation. Only employees who are honest about their work and educational backgrounds and can prove their qualifications will be an asset to your company.

Onboard new hires and run pre-employment screening with Rippling

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Rippling and its affiliates do not provide tax, accounting or legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any related activities or transactions.

last edited: March 26, 2024

The Author

Carrie Stemke

A freelance writer and editor based in New York City, Carrie writes about HR trends and global workforce management and is the Rippling content team’s expert on hiring know-how in Western Europe.