Using background checks for recruitment: 2013 XpertHR survey

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Our latest research explores the key issues arising when carrying out background checks on potential recruits – for example, how best to obtain references and how employers deal with references or criminal records checks that reveal adverse information about candidates.

On this page:
About this survey report
Types of checks carried out
Employer practice when seeking references
Chart 1: Types of information employers seek when obtaining references
Dealing with unfavourable information on candidates
Handling criminal records disclosures
Dealing with criminal records checks that contain adverse information
Chart 2: How employers handle adverse criminal records disclosures
Our research
What should I do now?

Of the 208 employers taking part in this research, just 14 (6.7%) do not conduct background checks on candidates as part of their recruitment process. Three employers in four (75.5%) carry out checks on all candidates, while the remainder (17.8%) do so for some vacancies.

About this survey report

This summary report covers key findings from the 2013 survey on carrying out background checks when hiring new staff.

XpertHR’s benchmarking service has the full data on the questions from our background checks survey, including:

  • the types of vacancies for which employers conduct background checks;
  • the methods that employers use for carrying out background checks;
  • the reference formats used by employers;
  • how useful employers find references; and
  • whether or not employers have uncovered discrepancies, inaccuracies or dishonesty in applicants’ background checks and, if so, their significance.

Types of checks carried out

The main types of checks that employers carry out are:

  • references (99.5% of employers);
  • seeing originals (or certified copies) of documents that confirm the applicant’s identity (89.7%);
  • seeing original copies (or certified copies) of qualifications (78.4%);
  • using the interview to follow up information given in the applicant’s CV or application form (73.7%);
  • Disclosure and Barring Service/Disclosure Scotland/Access NI checks (70.1%);
  • declarations from the candidate about unspent criminal convictions (64.4%); and
  • seeing original copies (or certified copies) of documents that confirm the applicant’s address (59.3%).

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Employer practice when seeking references

When employers obtain references on potential recruits, the most common approach is to obtain two references – this is the case for almost nine employers in 10 (87.6%). Just 2.6% of recruiting organisations rely on one reference alone, while one in 10 (9.8%) seek three or more references.

When looking at responding employers that obtain background checks on candidates, we found that all of them accompany their request for a reference with guiding information to help referees produce a more tailored reference. Three employers in four (75.1%) provide guidance for the referee on information they should supply. Other types of information provided include:

  • a copy of the job description for the vacant role (46.6% of employers);
  • a copy of the person specification (37.3%); and
  • a summary of the vacant role (28%).

Employers seek a wide range of information on potential recruits when obtaining references, as shown below in chart 1.

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Chart 1: Types of information employers seek when obtaining references

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Dealing with unfavourable information on candidates

This research explored how often references reveal negative background information about candidates and what action employers take when this happens.

Seven employers in 10 (72%) reported that they had “hardly ever” received references containing unfavourable information about candidates over the past two years, while 17.1% have “never” received them. A further 7.8% have faced this situation “fairly often”. No employer surveyed had had to deal with unfavourable references “very often”, and 3.1% could not provide feedback on the issue.

Employers typically take a number of steps when they receive a reference that contains unfavourable information or views about a candidate, including:

  • weighing up the information in the reference against the nature of the vacancy (73.7% of employers);
  • asking the candidate to give a response to this unfavourable information or opinion (64.8%);
  • not appointing the candidate (27.9%);
  • offering appointment subject to an extended probationary period (16.2%); and
  • re-interviewing the candidate (6.7%).

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Handling criminal records disclosures

Seven employers in 10 (70.1%) obtain criminal records checks on potential recruits.

On 1 December 2012, the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and Independent Safeguarding Authority merged to become the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) (external website). For organisations wishing to carry out criminal records checks on prospective or current employees, the former CRB checks are now known as DBS checks. In Scotland, this service is provided by Disclosure Scotland (external website) and by AccessNI (external website) in Northern Ireland.

We asked respondents how often candidates’ criminal records disclosures have revealed adverse information over the past two years:

  • 70.9% have experienced this situation in less than 5% of cases;
  • 13.4% of employers have received criminal records disclosures with adverse information in between 6% and 10% of cases;
  • 8.2% of employers – between 11% and 15% of cases;
  • 4.5% of employers – between 16% and 25% of cases;
  • 2.3% of employers – between 26% and 50% of cases; and
  • 0.7% of employers – more than 50% of cases.

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Dealing with criminal records checks that contain adverse information

How a recruiting organisation handles a criminal records check that reveals adverse information about a candidate will depend on the type of vacancy and the type of criminal conviction or information, but the typical steps that employers take in this situation are set out below in chart 2.

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Chart 2: How employers handle adverse criminal records disclosures

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Our research

This report is based on original research carried out online in January and February 2013. Responses were received from 208 organisations, employing more than 670,000 people. The breakdown by economic sector is as follows:

  • 131 (63%) are in private-sector services;
  • 32 (15%) are in manufacturing and production; and
  • 45 (22%) are in the public sector.

Broken down by workforce size, the respondent organisations comprise:

  • 81 (39%) employ between one and 249 employees;
  • 68 (33%) employ between 250 and 999 employees; and
  • 59 (28%) employ 1,000 or more.

The smallest organisation employs one person and the largest employs 250,000 people. The average number employed is 3,239.

This feature was written by Rachel Suff, researcher/writer, XpertHR.

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What should I do now?

  • Ensure your recruiting managers acoid the main legal pitfalls when conducting background checks by using this line manager briefing on making a job offer.
  • Read these FAQs on references to make sure that your organisation follows good practice when giving or obtaining employee references.
  • Use this model form if you wish to take up references on an applicant and need to gain his or her permission.
  • Use this model letter when writing to a referee authorised by a job applicant.

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