3 min read

A Guide to Employee Background Checks in the United Kingdom

Employee background checks
Legal & compliance


Michał Kowalewski


March 01, 2024

Last Update

July 03, 2024

Table of Contents

Essential information for a background check in the UK

Are background checks legal in the UK?

What types of background checks are illegal in the UK?

Common background check industries in the UK

Types of employee background checks in the UK

Background check mistakes to avoid in the UK

Step-by-step guide to employee background checks in the UK

Key takeaways
  1. Background checks are legal in the UK but must comply with strict data protection laws, requiring informed consent and focusing on relevant information.
  2. Common checks include criminal record checks, employment history verification, and right to work checks, while others like credit checks are less common and require specific justifications.
  3. When conducting background checks, employers should avoid discriminatory practices, using irrelevant information, mishandling personal data, and neglecting rehabilitation periods.

Employee background checks should be an integral part of your hiring process in the United Kingdom. Although not mandatory, they are a common practice, especially in finance, healthcare, education, transportation, logistics, government and public sector.

The UK presents a compelling location for international businesses seeking expansion due to its robust workforce. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK's labor participation rate in April-June 2023 stood at 76%, indicating a large portion of the population actively seeking employment. Pair that with the highly skilled workforce, mature business environment, and predictable legal system, and you have one of the more sought after global hiring destinations.

In this competitive environment, conducting background checks becomes important for companies to mitigate risks and make informed hiring decisions. These checks help verify information provided by candidates, ensuring they possess the qualifications and meet the necessary criteria for the role.

In this article you’ll learn:

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

Essential information for a background check in the UK

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 the UK, employee background checks are governed by the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR), ensuring the collection, storage, and processing of personal data, including information obtained during these checks, is done fairly, transparently, and lawfully.

Obtaining the candidate's informed consent is crucial before conducting any background checks, and employers must have a legitimate reason for doing so, such as assessing the candidate's suitability for the role.

Key organizations overseeing data protection and privacy in the UK include:

Unique cultural and legal considerations related to background checks in the UK include the emphasis on privacy and data protection. Candidates in the UK have a strong expectation of privacy, and any background checks must be conducted with utmost respect for their personal data. Additionally, the UK's legal framework places a high value on individual rights to privacy, which impacts the way background checks are conducted and the information that can be legally obtained.

Background checks are legal in the UK, but they must be conducted in compliance with data protection laws, particularly the UK GDPR.

Employers are required to inform candidates that they will be conducting background checks and obtain their explicit consent before proceeding. Although it’s not specified in the law, written consent is recommended for documentation and compliance purposes.

What types of background checks are illegal in the UK?

In the UK, background checks that infringe on an individual's privacy or data protection rights are considered illegal. 

Global employers should stay clear of the following prohibited practices:

  • Conducting checks without consent: This is the fundamental principle, as individuals have the right to control their personal data.
  • Gathering excessive or irrelevant information: The information sought should be directly related to the job requirements and the specific role for which the candidate is applying.
  • Discriminatory practices: This includes using information obtained during background checks to discriminate against individuals based on factors such as race, religion, gender, or disability.
  • Failing to comply with data security: This includes appropriate storage, use, and disposal of candidate information to ensure its protection from unauthorized access or misuse.
  • Requesting disclosure of "spent convictions": This protects individuals who have committed past offenses but have served their sentences and completed rehabilitation periods. Exceptions exist for certain roles involving safeguarding vulnerable individuals.

Consequences for employers who conduct illegal background checks in the UK can include legal action, financial penalties, and damage to their reputation. It is essential for employers to be aware of the legal landscape and adhere to the regulations to avoid potential repercussions.

UK GDPR outlines three penalty tiers: up to £500,000, £10 million, or a maximum of £17.5 million, depending on the severity and intention behind the infringement. The ICO website provides details on these tiers and factors influencing penalty levels.

Common background check industries in the UK

Employee background checks are prevalent across various industries in the UK, with specific sectors placing a strong emphasis on verifying candidates' qualifications, experience, and suitability for the roles. Some common industries where background checks are commonly conducted include:

  • Financial services: Due to the regulatory requirements and the sensitive nature of the work, the financial services industry often conducts thorough background checks, including credit checks and regulatory checks, to ensure the integrity and trustworthiness of employees.
  • Healthcare: In the healthcare sector, background checks are crucial to verify the qualifications, professional licenses, and criminal records of candidates to ensure patient safety and compliance with regulatory standards.
  • Education: Background checks are common in the education sector, particularly for roles that involve working with children or vulnerable individuals, where safeguarding and criminal record checks are essential.
  • Government and public sector: Given the public trust and responsibility associated with government and public sector roles, comprehensive background checks, including security clearance and right to work checks, are standard practice
  • Transportation and logistics: For roles involving driving or transportation, employers often conduct driving record checks and verify the candidates' qualifications to ensure safety and compliance with regulatory standards.

Types of employee background checks in the UK

Effective employment screening in the UK 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 the UK? Reason
Criminal Record Check Common Employers often conduct criminal record checks, especially for roles that involve working with vulnerable individuals or handling sensitive information
Employment History Verification Common This is a standard check to confirm the candidate's work experience, job responsibilities, and reasons for leaving previous roles
Right to Work Check Common Verifying a candidate's right to work in the UK is a common practice to ensure compliance with immigration laws
Qualifications Verification Common Validating the candidate's educational qualifications and professional certifications to ensure they meet the requirements for the role
Reference Check Common Contacting previous employers or professional references to gather feedback on the candidate's work performance and character
Credit History Check Less Common While relevant for certain roles, such as those involving financial responsibilities, credit checks are less common and require the candidate's explicit consent
Medical Checks Less Common Except for specific safety-critical roles, medical checks are generally prohibited, making them less common in standard background check processes
Social Media Screening Less Common Although employers may review publicly available social media profiles, formal social media checks are less common due to privacy considerations
Drug and Alcohol Testing Less Common While drug testing may be relevant for certain safety-critical roles, it is less common in standard background check procedures

Background check mistakes to avoid in the UK

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

  • Conducting unauthorized checks: Employers must obtain the candidate's consent before conducting any background checks to avoid infringing on their privacy rights
  • Discriminatory practices: Employers should ensure that background checks are conducted uniformly for all candidates and do not lead to discrimination based on protected characteristics, such as race, gender, or disability
  • Using irrelevant information: Employers should focus on obtaining and using only relevant information that directly relates to the candidate's suitability for the role
  • Mishandling personal data: Employers must handle and store the information obtained from background checks securely and in compliance with data protection laws to prevent data breaches
  • Neglecting rehabilitation periods: When considering criminal record information, employers should be aware of the rehabilitation periods outlined in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and not seek disclosure of spent convictions in most circumstances

Step-by-step guide to employee background checks in the UK

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

  1. Obtain candidate consent: Before conducting any background checks, employers must obtain the candidate's explicit consent and inform them of the types of checks that will be conducted
  2. Identify relevant checks: Determine the specific background checks that are relevant to the role being applied for, such as employment history verification, criminal record checks, and right to work checks
  3. Check criminal record: For roles that require a criminal record check, employers can apply for a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, formerly known as a CRB check, to obtain information about the candidate's criminal history
  4. Check candidate’s right to work: Verify that the candidate has the legal right to work in the UK by checking their immigration status and ensuring that they have the necessary visas or work permits
  5. Employment history verification: Confirm the candidate's employment history, including their previous roles, job responsibilities, and any gaps in employment
  6. Qualification checks: Validate the candidate's educational qualifications, professional certifications, and any other relevant credentials to ensure they meet the requirements for the role
  7. Checks references: Contact the candidate's previous employers or professional references to gather feedback on the candidate's work ethic, skills, and suitability for the role.
  8. Check credit history: If the role requires a credit check, obtain the candidate's consent and conduct the check in accordance with data protection regulations
  9. Document the process: Once the background checks are completed, ensure that all personal information obtained is securely stored and handled in compliance with the Data Privacy Act
  10. Inform the candidate: Once the background check is complete, communicate the findings to the candidate and allow them to address any discrepancies or provide context for the information obtained

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 tea!

Bree Cohen, VP of Talent, Power Digital Marketing

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