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Article

3 min read

A Guide to Employee Background Checks in South Africa

Employee background checks
Legal & compliance

Author

Michał Kowalewski

Published

March 21, 2024

Last Update

June 21, 2024

Table of Contents

What employers need to know before running background checks in South Africa

Are background checks legal in South Africa?

What types of background checks are illegal in South Africa?

Common background check industries in South Africa

Types of employee background checks in South Africa

Background check mistakes to avoid in South Africa

Step-by-step guide to employee background checks in South Africa

Run employee background checks with Deel

Key takeaways
  1. Background checks are a common way to verify qualifications in South Africa, especially for finance, healthcare, security, education & government jobs
  2. Typical checks in South Africa include criminal records, employment history, and qualification verification. Credit checks are less common and require justification, similarly to social media screening and drug testing
  3. Global employers should avoid background check mistakes like not getting consent, disregarding privacy, or using unauthorized providers

Employee background checks should be an integral part of your hiring process in South Africa. Although not mandatory, they are a common practice, especially in finance, healthcare, education, security services, government and public sector.

South Africa's strategic location and developed infrastructure make it an attractive hub for international companies. With a diverse economy, English speaking population and a skilled workforce, it serves as a great gateway to the broader African market.

However, challenges exist. The skills gap between what employers need and what's readily available can be significant. Additionally, South Africa's economy faces hurdles like high unemployment and fluctuating growth rates, impacting business stability. Bureaucratic hurdles can further complicate matters for international companies.

In this article, you will discover:

  • How to run an effective and legal employment screening in South Africa
  • What are the common types of employee checks in South Africa
  • Step-by-step process of a thorough employee screening
  • What mistakes to avoid when performing a background check in South Africa

What employers need to know before running background checks in South Africa

An employee background check is the process of verifying a potential hire’s work history, education, professional qualifications, and any criminal records they might have. It’s particularly beneficial to run before finalizing an employment offer or signing a contract, ensuring the candidate meets the company's standards and requirements. 

In South Africa, the processing of personal information is governed by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) and enforced by The Information Regulator

  • Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI Act): This legislation regulates how personal information is handled, including data collected during background checks. POPIA outlines the conditions for lawful processing and emphasizes the rights of individuals regarding their data. 
  • The Information Regulator: An independent body established in terms of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA). Its primary role is to enforce and oversee compliance with POPIA, ensuring the protection of personal information by public and private bodies. The regulator's responsibilities include handling complaints, conducting investigations, and ensuring entities adhere to the principles of data protection outlined in POPIA.
  • Cultural and historical considerations: South Africa has a unique cultural consideration related to background checks. The country's history of apartheid and the subsequent emphasis on equality and non-discrimination have shaped the approach to privacy and personal information. Employers should be mindful of these cultural sensitivities when conducting background checks and ensure that the process respects the privacy and dignity of individuals.

Background checks are legal in South Africa, but they must be conducted in accordance with the provisions of POPIA. Employers are required to obtain written consent of the individual before conducting a background check, and the purpose of the check must be clearly communicated. The information collected during the background check must be relevant to the position for which the individual is being considered.

One notable case that highlighted the legal landscape regarding background checks in South Africa is the case of National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa obo Khanyile Nganezi and Aveng Trident Steel (A division of Aveng Africa (Pty) Ltd). The Labour Court ruled that Aveng Trident Steel's requirement for employees to undergo polygraph testing as part of a background check was unlawful and in violation of the employees' rights to privacy. This case underscores the importance of conducting background checks within the boundaries of the law.

What types of background checks are illegal in South Africa?

While background checks are generally permissible in South Africa, certain types of checks are subject to restrictions:

  • Conducting a background check without explicit consent is prohibited under POPIA. Employers must obtain explicit consent from the individual before initiating the background check process.
  • Credit checks require specific justification and must be conducted in compliance with the National Credit Act. Employers must demonstrate a legitimate need for conducting credit checks, such as positions that involve financial responsibilities.
  • Employers should refrain from using lie detector tests (polygraph tests) as part of background checks, as the use of polygraph testing is restricted under South African law, as evidenced by the aforementioned case involving Aveng Trident Steel.

Violations of South African privacy laws, specifically under the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), can lead to severe penalties, including fines up to R10 million and/or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 10 years, depending on the breach's nature and severity.

Common background check industries in South Africa

Several industries in South Africa commonly require background checks as part of their hiring processes. These include:

  • Financial services: Given the nature of the industry and the importance of trust and integrity, financial institutions often conduct thorough background checks on potential employees.
  • Healthcare: Healthcare providers prioritize patient safety and confidentiality, making background checks essential for ensuring the suitability of employees in sensitive roles.
  • Security services: Security companies and organizations that provide security services prioritize background checks to ensure the reliability and trustworthiness of their personnel.
  • Education: Educational institutions conduct background checks to ensure the safety of students and maintain the integrity of the academic environment.
  • Government and public sector: Positions in the government and public sector often require background checks to uphold security and integrity in public service roles.

Types of employee background checks in South Africa

Effective employment screening in South Africa covers essential aspects to evaluate a candidate's abilities. Knowing these areas helps employers tailor screening processes to meet job requirements and legal standards.

Type of Check Common in South Africa Reason
Criminal Record Check Common A standard check to ascertain if the individual has a criminal record that may impact their suitability for the position
Employment History Verification Common Employers commonly verify the accuracy of an individual's employment history to validate their experience and tenure in previous roles
Qualification Verification Common This check is common across various industries to ensure that candidates possess the required educational and professional qualifications for the position
Credit History Check Less common In South Africa, credit checks are only common in financial roles and require explicit consent, but their use has declined due to legislative changes
Social Media Screening Less common While gaining popularity globally, social media screening is less common in South Africa due to privacy considerations and the need to respect individuals' personal lives
Drug Testing Less common While prevalent in some countries, drug testing as a background check is less common in South Africa, as it requires specific legal and ethical considerations

Background check mistakes to avoid in South Africa

Whether you’re hiring employees or contractors in South Africa, there are a few things you shouldn’t do as an employer when it comes to background checks:

  • Conducting unauthorized checks: Employers should refrain from conducting background checks without obtaining explicit consent from the individual, as this violates the provisions of POPIA
  • Disregarding privacy rights: It is crucial to respect the privacy rights of individuals during the background check process and ensure that the information collected is relevant to the position
  • Neglecting cultural sensitivities: Employers should be mindful of South Africa's cultural sensitivities regarding privacy and personal information, taking care to conduct background checks with respect and dignity
  • Failing to document consent: Employers must maintain records of the consent obtained for the background check, as well as the specific information collected and the outcomes of the checks
  • Using unauthorized providers: Engaging third-party providers that are not compliant with the legal requirements under POPIA can lead to legal and regulatory consequences for employers

Step-by-step guide to employee background checks in South Africa

Employers looking to hire in South Africa should follow the list of steps below to ensure legal and effective and thorough employee background checks.

  1. Obtain consent: Before initiating a background check, obtain explicit consent from the individual. Clearly communicate the purpose of the background check and the information that will be collected
  2. Identify relevant information: Determine the specific information that is relevant to the position for which the individual is being considered. This may include qualifications, employment history, criminal record, and credit history, among other relevant details
  3. Use authorized providers: When engaging third-party providers to conduct background checks, ensure that they are authorized and compliant with the legal requirements under POPIA
  4. Conduct qualification verification: Verify the educational and professional qualifications claimed by the individual. This can involve contacting educational institutions and previous employers
  5. Verify employment history: Validate the individual's employment history, including positions held, duration of employment, and responsibilities
  6. Check criminal record: Conduct a criminal record check through the South African Police Service to ascertain if the individual has a criminal record
  7. Check credit history (if relevant): If the position involves financial responsibilities, conduct a credit check in compliance with the National Credit Act
  8. Check references: Contact provided references to gain insights into the individual's character and work ethic
  9. Document the process: Maintain records of the background check process, including the consent obtained, the information collected, and the outcomes of the checks
  10. Communicate findings: Once the background check is completed, communicate the findings to the individual and make hiring decisions based on the verified information

You can also automate this process using Deel, and get a fast employee background check, with results coming in a matter of minutes.

After exploring various providers, it's clear that Deel is the best on the market. We were able to hire approximately 40 employees in the Philippines within a matter of months. Their background check process was easy and effective and made us feel safe about hiring in new markets. We're truly grateful for the opportunity to work with this team!

Bree Cohen,

Vice President of Talent

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