Background and right to work checks: are you protecting your organisation?



Read time
11 mins

Inadequate background and right to work check processes put your organisation at risk of fines and the risk of fraud. Technology can help to protect you, and speed up the compliance process

A ‘white lie’ on a CV or a candidate elaborating their experience in an application is not just a black mark against their honesty – it could also spell future trouble for your organisation. In 2018, an investigation by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 found that NHS consultants and nurses had been buying bogus degree certificates from non-existent universities via ‘diploma mills’ in Pakistan. In this case, the falsification of qualifications could seriously impact lives – but there are many other potential consequences of failing to do a thorough background screening of a potential candidate, including exposing your business to security breaches or serious crime.

During 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic increased pressures on HR teams to ensure they screen candidates adequately and avoid these risks. Jamie Allan, background checking consultant at Experian UK and Ireland, explains: “Sectors that did not have a significant requirement for background checking until recently now have significant volumes of work to get through. The increase in workload is particularly pronounced in sectors where there has been a rapid increase in vacancies, creating a labour shortage in that area of the market.” Allan describes a twofold impact: some teams will struggle to keep up where it’s hard to find talent or there are a lot of vacancies, while in other areas there may be ample work so candidates “reach for roles beyond their ability, experience or qualifications, and become tempted to fake aspects of their CV to reach the interview stage.” The fact that more people have been working from home than usual also creates a security risk of people having access to sensitive data while off site.

There are multiple points during the recruitment process at which a candidate can provide information or documentation that is not an authentic reflection of their experience, qualifications or right-to-work in the UK. This can take many forms – from the relatively harmless act of a candidate elaborating their levels of experience on their CV to obtaining fake qualifications and documents. A study by recruitment site CV-Library, for example, found that more than 90% of applicants had lied on their CV, with two-thirds admitting to an attempt to make themselves look more experienced. If this fraud is uncovered later in the employee lifecycle, it could mean your organisation is at risk of reputational damage, or worse – legal action. Former CEO of Yahoo!, Scott Thompson, was forced to step down after just four months in the role when an investor challenged his claim that he had a computer science degree. While he had not been hired on the strength of his claimed degree, his public position as CEO meant he had a greater responsibility to be transparent about his employment record.

With hiring managers often facing large volumes of applications or CVs to wade through on top of their day job, it’s perhaps not surprising that these embellishments are not always detected. Research by recruitment specialists Alexander Mann Solutions in 2019 found that 53% of recruiters do not detect fraudulent CVs until the interview stage, and 49% during the background checking phase. Common falsifications included altering employment timelines, inflating job titles and listing fake qualifications. If someone has faked documents or references, they may also pose a higher risk of committing a crime within your business, says Tony Machin, CEO of verification technology supplier TrustID. “Internal crime is one of biggest concerns for businesses – but they don’t like to talk about it,” he says. “If someone has fake documents, you will struggle to find them.” Furthermore, in certain roles, such as working with children or vulnerable people, where a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check is required, an applicant providing a fake document could create a dangerous safeguarding issue.

Having an employee background checking system in place to keep an audit trail of checks and balances made during the hiring process is therefore crucial. This could be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or something more sophisticated such as bespoke screening software or services, like TrustID’s, that integrate with your organisation’s applicant tracking and HR systems. Automating aspects of the screening process can also reduce the potential for human error. The checks and balances offered by integrating screening capability into your HR system mean that actions aren’t assumed and time-short recruitment teams don’t overlook essential parts of the verification process. Machin adds: “To the untrained eye or someone who has just been asked to look at a photocopy of a document, there may be vulnerabilities. Some organisations and sectors, such as construction, end up with high fake rates, or employers are targeted if it’s known they don’t perform proper checks.”

Automating checks does not mean that fakes go unchecked – if there are questions over the veracity of documents or specific regulatory requirements, they can be escalated to a manual check. For the candidate it makes the experience more seamless, too. Allan adds: “Candidates find it incredibly frustrating when they are repeatedly asked to enter the same information. This increases the risk of delays in the process or losing an applicant’s interest. Leading organisations are investing [in background screening technology] to achieve a seamless candidate journey with no need for candidates to enter information in some circumstances. In turn, this is driving process efficiency savings.”

Five types of background checks that an employer might make

  1. Criminal record checks: these must be proportionate and relevant to the role in question, according to Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Employers can use the DBS to find details of any convictions – and these are a prerequisite for many roles in sectors where candidates will be working with children or vulnerable people. The UK government recently announced it would make changes to how it defines spent convictions so that certain convictions will no longer automatically appear on DBS checks
  2. Educational credentials: an organisation may want to check an applicant’s university degree, technical qualifications, or school qualifications to ensure they meet skills requirements
  3. Right-to-work checks: all employers have a legal obligation to carry out checks to ensure that an applicant has a right-to-work in the UK, and failure to do so could result in a fine, while repeated breaches could lead to imprisonment. For British nationals this proof of right-to-work in the UK tends to be a copy of their passport, which can be checked in-person or digitally via accredited identify verification technology
  4. Credit checks: financial services organisations in particular carry out credit checks on candidates to ensure that they do not have a history of financial mismanagement, and that they do not pose an increased risk when it comes to handling money or sensitive data
  5. References: reference checks are a common way for employers to check that the employment history of an applicant rings true. Some companies have policies governing the information they can share in references to ensure consistency and to ensure they only share information that is factual and accurate, rather than subjective

“If there is an investigation you would need to be able to show you had processes in place and that you took the required steps to gain documentation,” explains Naomi Goldshtein, a senior manager at immigration consultancy Fragomen. “Systems can range from major HR systems to bespoke systems that track immigration status and can generate reports and send expiry reminders.” When it comes to someone’s right-to- work in the UK, employers that have not performed the correct checks, or did not do them properly, could face a fine of up to £20,000 for each illegal worker, so it’s crucial to keep on top of this documentation.

Right-to-work checks, in particular, are in the spotlight because, on 1 January 2021, automatic freedom of movement for EU nationals (or UK employees working in the EU) technically came to an end as part of the Brexit process. This currently means employees from EU countries will need to show proof of residence, evidence of pre-settled or settled status. There was a six-month ‘grace’ period up to the end of June 2021 to enable them to apply for the status, but without it they could be working illegally from 1 July 2021. The government planned to make the status a digital document so that workers are less at risk of losing physical documentation – and this will also make it less susceptible to forgery, according to Goldshtein. Biometric resident permits (BRPs) are currently one of the most common ways to show someone’s right-to- work, but these are still a physical piece of evidence.

While typically employers have relied on new recruits or candidates turning up to the office with physical proof of their passport or other right-to-work documents, this was relaxed during the coronavirus pandemic. Hirers were able to see the documentation over video link, together with a scan sent by email. From 1 October 2022, however, employers will no longer be able to use the temporary Covid-adjusted right-to-work guidance. This means that they won’t eb able to ask employees to share a scanned copy or photo of their documents, and then confirm their identity over a video call. Instead, they’ll need to use an accredited Identity Service Provider (IDSP) to perform checks on holders of in-date British and Irish passports

We could see future moves towards digital identity and qualification checking in the future – with blockchain being the technology to watch. Blockchain works as a digital ‘ledger’ of information, shared across a network of computers with security built in at each stage, making it difficult to falsify or hack. In the hiring process, it could be used as a repository for a candidate’s employment history, evidence of their qualifications and any other pertinent information. In theory, blockchain could share up-to-the-minute data about applicants’ previous job titles and any outstanding grievances or courses they’ve completed. With everything in one secure place, this removes the need to trawl through LinkedIn and source multiple documents and references from previous employers and public bodies. While it’s likely to be some years before blockchain is adopted as a secure record of employment history or qualifications, the technology is surging in acceptance – a Deloitte survey showed a 2000% increase in interest in the technology since 2013.

Performing rigorous background checks on candidates is not just about avoiding a fine or reducing the risk of crime; it’s also about building confidence that the candidate is giving a true version of themselves during the hiring process. Allan says that while not carrying out the appropriate checks can lead to fines or penalties for failing to adhere to regulatory requirements, the overall damage can be “much more profound and long-lasting”. For example, he says, “Criminals can infiltrate a business and use it to create ‘ghost employees’ to siphon off small amounts of money over time and steal customer data or intellectual property. Failing to carry out adequate checks can put colleagues, clients and the general public at risk, depending on the industry.” The negative publicity associated with any crime could have long-term commercial consequences, too.

Digging deeper into job responsibilities and CV claims can help assess whether a candidate will be a good addition to an organisation’s culture, as well as provide an idea of their level of skills and experience. Machin concludes: “Yes, there’s a legislative requirement to produce certain documents, but if their documentation is good and real it means you can have confidence in that person. It’s about knowing who you’re employing.”

Five key takeaways

  1. Robust pre employment checks on potential employees help you understand more about who you’re hiring and can mitigate the risk of internal crime
  2. Failure to carry out proper right-to-work checks could carry a fine, so make this a priority
  3. Having a system and audit trail in place will work in an employer’s favour should there be an investigation
  4. Be aware of the changes to UK immigration rules that were introduced in 2021, which require organisations to ask for proof of settled status from all non-UK workers and meet a points-based threshold for skilled worker recruitment
  5. Fake documentation or qualifications are more common than you think, so consider investing in a third-party background screening service


This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools, published by leading UK HR software provider Ciphr. For more insight into how technology can change work for the better, download the complete book for free, now.