Practical guidance – Developing a policy towards applicants with a criminal record

Aim of this guidance

This guidance is for employers that have a recruitment process which involves asking about criminal records at some point. It’s designed to help you to establish a clear, accessible external policy that explains your approach towards applicants with a criminal record.

The guidance covers why you should have a policy. It also provides details of the areas you should cover in a policy. It’s part of our practical guidance on developing your approach towards criminal records.

Crucially, this guidance doesn’t include a template policy. Although there’s guidance about the areas to cover, and we provide suggestions for how you might go about each area, it’s important that you look at this from the perspective of your organisation, thinking about your values and the processes that you have in place. Only then can you write a policy that reflects these. It may be that you’re looking to change your processes as part of developing your policy, and this guidance should help you in looking at what a good policy might look like.

Why this is important

  • Many people don’t apply for positions where details of criminal records are asked for, because of the shame and embarrassment they feel about their pasts, even where their criminal record wouldn’t make them a risk.
  • Many others don’t apply for roles because they believe they will be unfairly discriminated against – refused employment on the basis of old and/or wholly irrelevant convictions. There has been deal of discrimination among employers.
  • Having a clear, accessible policy is a principle of fair chance recruitment.
  • If you’re doing DBS checks as part of your recruitment process, you must have a policy in place for how you deal with applicants with a criminal record.
  • Although many employers have some form of policy, it’s often a standard ‘template’ that is outdated and doesn’t properly reflect their process, nor is it easily available

The need for a specific policy

A specific policy that sets out your approach towards applicants with criminal records can:

  1. Ensure clarity and confidence in your approach, both internally and externally
  2. Give confidence to applicants that they’ll be treated fairly
  3. Explain what needs to be disclosed and when
  4. Reduce the likelihood that applicants disclose too little or too much
  5. Provide supportive guidance to help applicants understand the process
  6. Be a requirement, if you do DBS checks
  7. Explain and promote to your existing employees the approach you take

Equality and diversity is all about treating people fairly. So it’s right to think of your approach towards applicants with a criminal record as part of your broader equal opportunities policy.

Some organisations include their approach to criminal records as part of their equal opportunities.  In practice, you can decide to include this within your equal opportunities policy, or it can exist as a standalone policy. Either way, a general statement in your equal opportunities policy can be useful. For example, you could say:

“We are committed to the fair treatment of our staff, potential staff and users of our services, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, responsibilities for dependants, age, physical/mental disability or offending background.”

Although ‘having a criminal record’ is not a specifically named ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010, it is important to protect against indirect discrimination against those groups more likely to have a criminal record, such as black and minority ethnic groups.

A specific policy around applicants with criminal records is mainly (but not necessarily exclusively) focused on recruitment. This can overlap with your safeguarding policy.

All organisations that work with or come into contact with children should have safeguarding policies and processes to ensure that every child can be protected from harm.  This will normally include a focus on recruitment, induction and supervision, including what checks you carry out on new people who work or volunteer.

We recommend that organisations see their policy on applicants with a criminal record as closely linked (but separate) to their approach on safeguarding. This ensures that your approach to safeguarding doesn’t focus too heavily on formal vetting procedures (such as DBS) checks, and recognises that a safeguarding policy has a different purpose to a policy on applicants with a criminal record.

The NSPCC has a significant amount of helpful guidance on safeguarding and writing safeguarding policies.

The short answer is no.

Too many organisations take ‘templates’ or ‘sample policies’ and use them for their organisation without given them any proper consideration. This misses the point. The values and ethos, as well as practice and processes, are unique to each organisation. The guidance here is designed to support you in developing your own policy that’s tailored to the values and processes that you have.

This guidance is focused on developing an external policy that is focused at potential applicants. You may have further details about your approach, including specific details of those involved, in an additional policy or process that’s for internal use. You may also include a section within your staff handbook that explains that you employ people with criminal records, the benefits this can bring to the organisation, and what they should do if they have any questions or concerns.

 

What makes a good policy

Instead of providing a template or sample policy, this section covers the areas that a policy should include, and suggests some text that might be appropriate.

For each area, we describe what we mean (‘What?’) and provide details of how you might do this (‘How?’) with some examples that you might use and adapt (although these will only work if they accurately reflect your approach)

 

A good policy towards applicants with a criminal record is one that…

Is clear and accessible

A policy needs to be easy to understand. Try not to use complex legal language. Applicants also need to know it exists.
Don’t simply copy legislation – interpret the legislation and apply it to your process. Link to the policy from all your vacancies. Make sure it’s available to all applicants at the start of the recruitment process without them having to specifically request it; if you make it available ‘on request’, applicants may be concerned about flagging up that they have a criminal record (which they may not need to actually reveal to you).

Is welcoming and positive

A policy should start from a positive basis. Negative phrases such as “having a criminal record will not necessarily bar you from working with us,” (which we often see) sends the wrong message as it suggests that you’re starting from the presumption that it probably will.
For example, you could say:

“[Organisation] actively promotes equality of opportunity for all and welcomes applications from a wide range of candidates. [Organisation] recognises the contribution that people with criminal records can make as employees and volunteers and welcome applications from those with a criminal record. We select all candidates for interview based on their skills, qualifications and experience”

Recognises the breadth of criminal records

The vast majority of applicants that have a criminal record will have single, one-off offences from many years ago. Some might have more recent offences that are not relevant to the role. It’s important that you recognise this in your policy, instead of solely focusing on more serious examples that are likely to be rare.

For example, you could say:

“A criminal record will not normally, in itself, prevent an applicant from being appointed to the post. Suitable applicants will not be refused posts because of offences that are not relevant to the role and which do not raise serious concerns in the role for which they are applying. We will judge each case on its merits and not discriminate unfairly against any applicant on the basis of a conviction or criminal record information disclosed to us.”

Is tailored

Your policy should be unique to your organisation and reflect the values and processes that you have. You need to show that you’ve thought about it; don’t copy templates.
For example, think about the types of roles that you have. How does disclosure legislation apply to these roles? Which roles (in general terms) will involve which levels of criminal record check?

Is legally correct and recognises rehabilitation laws

Your policy needs to make sure it correctly applies the laws surrounding criminal records, rehabilitation and disclosure correctly. Too often we see phrases such as “we carry out enhanced DBS checks on roles in the organisation” (even though that is likely to be illegal, as enhanced DBS checks can only be done on certain roles).

For example, there are a couple of phrases that will make sure you don’t misinterpret disclosure legislation:

“We only ask applicants to provide details of convictions and cautions that we are legally entitled to know about”

“For roles where the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act applies, we will ask applicants to disclose any unspent offences. Spent convictions do not need to be disclosed.”

“For roles that are exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, we will ask applicants to disclose any convictions and cautions that would not currently by filtered by the DBS.

Explains what you ask for and when

Your policy should explain what questions you ask about criminal records, and when you ask. This ensures that applicants know when they should (and shouldn’t) disclose, helping to reduce the chance that people disclose before or after you want them to.

The DBS sample policy suggests asking “at interview, or in a separate discussion”. Adopting this wording exactly will still leave it unclear when you ask. Organisations should have a specific process in place, and this should be noted in your policy.

For example, if you ask those you offer a position to, you could say:

“After we’ve chosen the person we’d like to recruit, we’ll provide all applicants with a criminal record self-disclosure form. For those that disclose information at this stage, we will ensure that an open and measured discussion takes place with the individual to discuss their criminal record. Failure to disclose information that is then later revealed on the relevant criminal record check could lead to withdrawal of an offer of employment. After receiving a criminal record certificate, we will discuss any matters revealed that have not been previously addressed, before reconsidering the conditional offer of employment. “

If you’ve signed up to the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, you could say:

“To ensure that we don’t discourage applications from people with a criminal record, and to ensure that we shortlist applications purely on merit, we don’t ask for criminal record details at application stage. This recognises our support for the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign.

What applicants are required to disclose will depend on the role that they are applying for. We will make it clear in the job description what type of role it is, and therefore what will need to be disclosed.”

Explains what checks you’ll do

If you carry out criminal record checks on successful applicants, you should make it clear what level of check you’ll be undertaking. Simply saying “a criminal record check will be undertaken on all roles” is not enough. Bear in mind that referring to “carrying out DBS checks” is not clear enough, as the DBS provide different levels of check.
For example, you could say:

“For those positions where a criminal record check is identified as necessary, all application forms, job adverts and recruitment briefs will make clear what level of check will be submitted on the individual being offered the position”

Explains the decision-making process

Your policy should explain how you make decisions based on criminal records disclosed by applicants or revealed on criminal record checks.

Our guidance on assessing criminal records should help. We have a criminal record assessment template. If you use something similar in your processes, you could say something like:

“For any information disclosed, cases will be looked on an individual basis, taking into account details such as;

  • Whether it’s information we are legally allowed to consider
  • Whether the offence is relevant to the position applied for
  • The seriousness
  • The age at the time of the offence(s).
  • The length of time since
  • Whether there is a pattern of offending behaviour.
  • The circumstances surrounding the offence(s), and the explanation(s) provided
  • Whether circumstances have changed since

Any information disclosed either through a self-disclosure or a formal criminal record check will be treated in the strictest confidence. We will consider any information disclosed before confirming an offer of employment. If necessary, we may arrange a face-to-face discussion with the applicant to obtain further details. It is important to understand that failure to disclose information that we have requested could result in disciplinary proceedings or dismissal.”

Gives confidence

Many people with criminal records feel ashamed, embarrassed and worried about what will happen to the details they’re providing to you. Some will back out of the process as a result.

You can explain how you understand some of the concerns applicants may have and what steps you take in response. For example, you could say that:

“We have recruited many people with past criminal records”

“We ensure that all those involved in the recruitment process have received appropriate guidance and training in the legislation and practice of recruiting people with criminal records.”

“We ensure that all those who are involved in making suitability decisions based on an applicants’ criminal record have been trained to do so.”

Uses the right language

The words that you use in your policy will give a strong impression of how you approach your process.
Avoid meaningless phrases like “you need to have a satisfactory DBS”. Stay away from stigmatising phrases like “ex-offenders” – use “applicants with a criminal record” as this is factually accurate.

Provides an overview of the process and is consistent

Although your policy should aim to be short, it may end up being a couple of pages long. If this is the case, a short summary of the end-to-end process, from an applicants perspective, will help to ensure your policy is clear and easy to understand. Depending on how you build your policy, you need to make sure that, overall, it’s consistent and doesn’t give mixed messages
A simple ‘disclosure process’, broken down as bullet-points or in a flow-chart, will help applicants understand the process.

Points people in the right direction for support

Applicants may have questions about your policy. They may be thinking of applying but have a question about your policy before they do. They may have general questions about their criminal record where they need to be pointed to sources of support externally.

Provide a specific point of contact internally who can answer general questions about your policy. Provide details of external sources of support (such as Unlock’s information site) that can help give advice to people with a criminal record.

For example, you could say:

For positions covered by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, we will ask applicants to disclose any unspent offences. For guidance in answering this question, visit the Unlock information site which has useful information on this legislation.

For positions exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, we will ask applicants to disclose any convictions, cautions, reprimands or final warnings that would not be currently filtered by the Disclosure and Barring Service. For guidance in answering this question, visit the Unlock information site which has useful information on filtering.

Is reviewed and kept up to date

Your policy needs to be accurate, which means regularly reviewing it to keep it up to date. Criminal records and disclosure legislation and practice is constantly changing. Despite the CRB becoming the DBS in 2012, we still see policies refer to companies “doing CRB checks”.
You should aim to review your policy on an annual basis, and publish any updates on your website.

 

Complying with the DBS code of practice

If you do DBS checks as part of your recruitment process, you should comply with the DBS code of practice.

The code of practice (published under section 122 of the Police Act 1997) advises that registered bodies must:

  • “Have a written policy on the suitability of ex-offenders for employment in relevant positions” (the DBS has produced the a sample policy statement which can be used or adapted for this purpose, although the problem with sample policies is partly why we have this guidance)
  • “Notify all potential applicants of the potential effect of a criminal record history on the recruitment and selection process and any recruitment decision”
  • “Discuss the content of the Disclosure with the applicant before withdrawing any offer of employment”

Examples of good practice

Do you know of a good policy? Let us know and we’ll look at featuring it here. 

Examples of bad practice

To illustrate why this guidance is important, we’ve included some examples where practice could (and should) be improved.

  • We regularly see reference to “the CRB” – this refers to the Criminal Records Bureau, which hasn’t existed since 2012. This alone indicates that a company hasn’t properly (or effectively) reviewed its policy in a while
  • Many organisations simply take the DBS sample policy (which includes reference to “ex-offenders”) without tailoring it to their organisation to reflect their actual policy

Frequently asked questions

This section will be added to over time, responding to the common questions we receive about this guidance.

Help with updating your policy

This guidance should help you to work on your policy. We welcome organisations coming forward who are actively working on their policy to update it to reflect this guidance. We are happy to confidentially review draft policies that are in the process of being updated. Get in touch by emailing recruit@unlock.org.uk.

Useful resources

The DBS sample policy is worth looking at, but use this as guidance instead of simply adopting that policy.

More information

  1. There is more information about developing your approach to criminal records, which forms part of the practical guidance section of Recruit!
  2. For further advice about this guidance, please contact us.

Has this been useful?

Let us know if this guidance has been useful. Have you used it in your organisation? Has it helped you to change your policy or practice? Please let us know so that we can show the impact of this guidance and continue to help others.

You can let us know by:

  1. Writing a comment on this page (see below)
  2. Sending your feedback directly to us
  3. Emailing us at recruit@unlock.org.uk
This guidance was last updated in August 2016. 

Is there anything wrong with this guidance? Let us know – email recruit@unlock.org.uk

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