What is an Employee Background Check?

An employee background check, also known as a pre-employment screening, is a process where an employer checks to ensure that a person is who they claim to be. It provides an employer with the opportunity to check an employee’s criminal record, employment history, education, and any other relevant activities. Employee background checks are a standard within most countries, with most employers using it as a means to affirm identity and credentials.

This article is going to cover the overall aspects of background checks but with a focus on the following jurisdictions:

Why would I want to do a Pre-Employment Screening? 

There are various reasons why an employer would want to carry out a pre-employment screening. On a base level, employees are one of the most important assets that a business has, as a result, good employees are extremely valuable. For example, an employee that is hostile could result in loss of company goodwill as well as put customers and fellow employees at risk. They could even create an uncomfortable working environment which could result in the working conditions not being optimal. Consequently, ensuring that good employees are appointed is crucial and pre-employment screenings are a primary method of guaranteeing this. In this section, the key reasons for requiring an employee background check will be outlined. 

Key reasons include: 

Some of the key reasons for pre-employment screenings will now be further explored below. 

Protect Employers and Employees

  • Employers can be liable for accidents and faults within a workplace
  • Due to an applicant’s criminal background, for example, if they committed sexual assault or violent crimes, they could potentially pose a threat to customers and other employees 
  • As such employers should endeavour to check and ensure that applicants cannot pose a threat
  • There are other forms of relevant risks that could be posed by a prospective employee, such as:
    • Financial Losses
    • Negligent Driving in Public 
    • Reputational Loss

Keeping the Workplace a Drug-Free Environment 

  • Understanding whether an applicant or employee has any drug-related charges can be useful if an employer wants to establish a drug-free environment 
  • It could also be useful if an employer is looking for an applicant that will, for example, be driving. If an applicant has a charge related to driving under the influence this information may also be useful 

Maximizing Productivity

  • Employers look to maximize productivity and profit and having a good workforce is key to achieving that goal
  • As employees are very important assets to a company, employers need to be sure that the information they are basing their decisions on is accurate

What Types of Employee Background Checks Should Be Conducted? 

In each jurisdiction, there are a variety of pre-employment screenings and employee background checks that are permitted, as well as a selection that is prohibited. The nature and extent of how these tests can be conducted vary from country to country and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In this section, the key tests that can be conducted will be summarised, there will be a focus on the main tests that are generally permitted in every country. For more in-depth evaluations on what is permitted in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, please use the links indicated.

The images below are taken from the Mayer Brown Global Guide, and they summarise every country’s stance on most available background checks using a traffic light system. Green shows that they are completely permitted; Yellow, partially permitted; Red is completely prohibited.

Below are some of the key tests that are permitted across most jurisdictions.

Criminal Record Check

A criminal record check helps an employer determine the criminal background of an applicant. The purpose of this check is to ensure that an applicant or employee will not pose a threat to customers and or employees. The information that can be collected during a criminal background check varies from country to country, for example in the US, criminal background checks usually consist of checking a series of databases, including the national criminal database and the sex offender registry. In the UK, criminal background checks are permitted but only where it is reasonable and necessary to do so.

Medical Screenings

Medical screenings are not permitted in every country, but when they are, they tend to be permitted in cases where they are necessary, reasonable and proportionate. Equally, in most cases, employers are unable to request family medical history as well. 

Education and Qualification Verification

Education and Qualification verification is a crucial part of pre-employment screening. As such, it is no surprise that it is entirely permitted in almost every country. As discussed earlier, employing the best employees guarantees the best results, consequently, employees are one of the most vital assets that a company has. Further, employees can lie or exaggerate their qualifications and educational background. These checks ensure that an employee attended the institutions stated and attained the relevant qualifications, and at the level or grade stated. Additionally, some positions require specific training or qualifications. Employers can avoid a negligence suit or accusations of non-compliance by ensuring that those hired are qualified to do the relevant job.

Social Media Checks

Social media checks can provide employers with key information about an employee and their character. That said, it is often advised that if employers are to use this information that they do not discriminate against an employee based on what they discover on their profile. Most jurisdictions have prohibitions on disqualifying an applicant based on their protected characteristics. Employers could discover information about an applicant’s race, sex, or religion for example, and choosing to disqualify them from the application process on that basis would be illegal. 

Credit and Financial Checks

Credit and financial checks are often limited to roles where an employee would have to manage anything relating to a company’s or business’s finances. This is generally because pre-employment screenings are often limited to reasonable and necessary searches. Thus, if an applicant was being screened to be a company driver, conducting credit or financial check would be unnecessary. 

What Employee Background Checks are Typically Conducted?

As has been mentioned, different jurisdictions have different prohibitions on pre-employment screenings. This can influence what tests are common in different countries, below is a summary of the main pre-employment screenings conducted in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, for further information on how these checks are regulated please click on the links indicated. 

US Employee Checks

  • Criminal History Check 
  • Prior Employment Verification 
  • Education Verification 
  • Sexual Offender Registry Check 
  • Reference Check 
  • Drug Screening 
  • Credit Background Check 
  • Professional License and Certificate Confirmation 
  • Social Security Number Trace
  • Social Media and Internet Check 
  • Driving Record

UK Employee Checks

  • Criminal Record Check 
  • Credit Check 
  • Education and Qualification Verification 
  • Reference Check 
  • Right to Work Check 
  • Social Media Screening 
  • Public Safety Verification 
  • DVLA Checks
  • Drug Testing 

Canadian Employee Checks

  • Criminal Background Check 
  • Credit Record Check 
  • Education and Qualification Check 
  • Employment Reference Check 
  • Social Media Background Check 
  • Driver’s Record Background Check 
  • Drug Testing 

Australian Employee Checks

  • Police Check 
  • Working with Children Check 
  • Qualifications Check 
  • References Check 
  • Credit Check 
  • Medical Screening 

When Can an Employee Background Check Be Conducted? 

The time period for when an employer can conduct a background check varies depending on the jurisdiction. For example, in the US, employers are able to conduct background checks at any time as long as they have obtained explicit permission from the relevant employee or applicant. In the UK, Canada and Australia this is not the case and there is a limited time period to conduct employee background checks. 

US Background Check

  • The test can be conducted at any time, even if an employee has been employed for an extended time period 
  • The only condition is that consent is received from the relevant party

UK Background Check

  • Prior to offering employment
  • If the offer is given, the offer can be conditional and based on the applicant or employee passing employee background checks

Canadian Background Check

After an applicant has received a conditional offer of employment

Australian Background Check

Can be conducted throughout the recruitment process and during employment as long as consent has been given

Are Employee Background Checks Legal? 

Although employee background checks are generally legal in most jurisdictions, there are particular legal requirements that have to be met. The general overall requirements for background checks are as follows:

Cannot Discriminate

  • Employers cannot make decisions about appointing applicants or promoting employees based on any protected characteristics.
  • All applicants have to be treated equally, so if a pre-employment screening comes back with one particular issue that causes employers to reject someone if that same issue appears in another application, they too should be rejected. 
  • Employers can face consequences if they discriminate against candidates and employees, what those consequences entail depends on the country and legal jurisdiction.

Applicant or Employee needs to give Consent or be Made Aware of the Employee Background Check

  • Employees and Applicants need to be made aware that an employee background check is being conducted.
  • Equally, they need to be made aware of what pre-employment screenings or background checks are being conducted as well

Information has to be Appropriately Stored and Disposed of  

  • Information has to be securely stored by the employer once collected
  • Additionally, once the information is no longer needed, necessary or being used, it should be appropriately disposed of 
  • How information should be stored and disposed of varies depending on the jurisdiction

Employees Should have Access to the Information

Employees and Applicants should be able to access the information collected from the employee background check

What Sources Can Employers Use for Employee Background Checks?

Employers are generally allowed and are often encouraged to outsource pre-employment screenings to employee screening services. However, they must note that they should not choose a free service, free services may be illegal and not comply with necessary regulatory requirements. 

Additionally, if an employee screening service is conducting the pre-employment screening, the applicant or employee should not only be made aware of this, but they should know the exact employee screening service conducting the investigation. 

Selecting an Employee Screening Service

Understandably it may be hard to select an employee screening service to conduct your pre-employment screenings. This is particularly because there are a huge variety of providers. Below is a list of the key attributes of a good employee screening service. This list is not exhaustive but they are the key ingredients of a good provider. 

Additional Resources on Country-Specific Employee Background Checks

For more specific content please see our other guides to pre-employment screenings:

Protecting your Business: An Easy Guide to US Employee Background Checks

Protecting your Business: An Easy Guide to UK Employee Background Checks

Protecting your Business: An Easy Guide to Canadian Employee Background Checks

Protecting your Business: An Easy Guide to Australian Employee Background Checks