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Disclosing a criminal record when applying for jobs

There are many issues facing people entering the workplace or already working, but if you have a criminal record, you could face greater challenges in realising your career aims because of barriers to equality of opportunity.

If you’re looking for work you may be familiar with and perhaps even concerned about what you need to disclose about yourself in your applications for jobs.

The Directgov website spells out the current position regarding discrimination at work. It explains that the law on equal opportunities aims to create a level playing field, so that people are employed, paid, trained and promoted only because of their skills, abilities and how they do their job.

Declaring a criminal conviction

If you have a criminal record you may be worried about how it might affect your job prospects and about its implications for working in the future. Having a criminal record doesn’t prevent you from getting a job. However, some organisations are exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) in the UK and in those cases, you’ll need to disclose all convictions whether they are spent or not.

What does the law say regarding disclosure of criminal records?

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) permits the majority of convictions and all final warnings, reprimands and cautions to be classed as ‘spent’ after a specific time frame, which is referred to as the ‘rehabilitation period’.

When applying for jobs, if you have a spent conviction, under the ROA, you’ve the legal right to not declare it. Most roles are covered by the ROA, although there are some organisations and professional bodies that are exempt to ROA legislation, meaning the employer can request information regarding any spent or unspent convictions and / or cautions that you may have.

What happens if you have a criminal record and you apply for a job?

The employer might request a basic disclosure check on you, which is a search that can be carried out by any employer or voluntary organisation as part of the hiring process.

Basic disclosure check - As the name suggests, this check is a simple one and will only disclose any unspent convictions that you may have. Spent convictions will not show on a basic check and it is in this instance where you don’t need to declare any conviction that is spent.

What happens if you have a criminal record and you apply for a job that is exempt from the ROA?

As previously mentioned, some roles are exempt from the ROA and certain checks will be carried out as a result. Unlock is a charity that provides guidance and information concerning issues relating to convictions and has a list of the types of jobs that can be exempt of the ROA.

If you apply for one of these exempt jobs, you may be subject to a criminal record check, which is carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) on behalf of the employer. There’s three levels of checks in operation and the level requested by the employer is determined by the type of job role.

The three levels are:

  • Standard checks - This level of check requests information on both spent and unspent convictions, final warnings, reprimands and cautions.
  • Enhanced checks - For an enhanced check, the same information as a standard check will be requested, as well as any additional information that may be held by your local police force, which could be deemed relevant to the role for which you’re applying.
  • Enhanced checks with barred lists - This final level is the same as an enhanced check, but also includes further checks to see if you’re barred from working with children and / or adults.

Declaring your conviction to a prospective employer

Seeking employment with a criminal record can feel challenging and sometimes confusing. Some of your concerns may include:

  • What impact a criminal record will have on you gaining and keeping employment.
  • How, when and if to disclose a conviction to a prospective employer.

Some of the common questions relating to these concerns are answered below.

If asked, why should you consider declaring your criminal record?

This is essentially down to honesty, transparency and trust. You’ll only need to declare your record if an employer asks you, but if you fail tell the truth about your record when asked and your employer learns about it at a later date, you’re at risk of losing your job and potentially being prosecuted.

Furthermore, if you’re on licence at the time and fail to disclose information to the employer, you may be recalled back to prison.

If you haven’t been asked, should you still advise the employer about your criminal record?

This depends on a number of factors. The Legally need to disclose? flow chart from Unlock (PDF, 69.24 KB) can help you decide.

How and when should you disclose your criminal record?

You’ll improve your chances of securing a role by disclosing in the right way. Unlock has excellent advice on disclosure and also has examples of disclosure statements in letters of application.

Some points for you to bear in mind include:

  • You’ll need to reassure employers that you’re not a risk and that your crimes are in the past.
  • If you were found guilty when young, have turned your life around and have responsibilities now, it shows that you’ve much to lose by getting into trouble again and you should highlight this to the employer.
  • If the record is not relevant to the job, politely say so. For example; a historic driving offence, shouldn’t hinder your chances of working in your local paper shop.
  • If you pleaded guilty to the crime, then you could say so. It shows that you took ownership for your wrongdoing at the time and still do.
  • If the crime sounds more serious than it is, you could also explain this. If the reasons behind the crime would help to minimise its seriousness, you could also highlight this. Be careful to not make it sound like an excuse for the crime, but instead, more of an explanation.
  • Finally, be mindful that you don’t allow your record to take over your application, covering letter or interview.

When to disclose

If an employer is going to ask about a criminal record, it is likely to be at the application stage. In instances where an application form asks, or you’re at the point when you’re sending in a CV it might be best to put ‘See covering letter’, where you give a short account of the offence and your attitude to it. Alternatively, you can say that you’re happy to discuss it at the interview.

If you’ve served a prison sentence that’s left a gap in your work history, you can write on the form or include in your CV ‘Not in employment’ or ‘Unavailable for work due to personal circumstances’ and then give more details either in the covering letter, or at the interview.

The advantage of disclosing at the interview is that the employer has the opportunity to see the person behind the conviction; but bear in mind that it takes a lot of confidence to disclose at this stage.

However, the employer might unexpectedly ask about criminal records or require you to disclose at the job offer stage. If you’ve not already been asked, be prepared to deal with this to reduce the chances of a job offer being withdrawn.

Listen to our careers advisers discuss if and how you should disclose a criminal record.

Useful resources

    A social justice charity dedicated to helping people with convictions; it campaigns on their behalf as well as giving direct advice and support.

  • Apex Trust
    Promoting employment as a means to putting crime behind them, Apex Trust helps people with criminal records obtain appropriate jobs or self-employment by providing them with the skills needed in the labour market and it also works with employers to break down barriers.

    An independent charity that offers advice on employment issues for people with previous convictions, Unlock will also provide advice on disclosing a criminal record, how to find out if a conviction is spent and other help and information.

  • Target Jobs
    This website has a helpful section with advice and guidance on how to find work with a criminal conviction.

  • The Open University Careers Contacts
    If you’ve been in prison, you should consider contacting an OU careers adviser early on in your studies, who can offer advice about the process of applying for jobs.