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Blog | 20 January 2022

How to get a job when you have a criminal record

When you’ve got a criminal record, we know it can be difficult to get a job. Maybe you’re anxious whether you should even apply.

You’re not alone. More than 11 million people in the UK have a criminal record. The laws and practices around employment and criminal records check can be very confusing. But the good news is that having a conviction doesn’t automatically stop you from getting a job.

In fact, at Working Chance, we’ve supported thousands of women who have convictions into employment. Here are some steps you can take to best prepare you to look for work:

1. Know your rights

What a lot of people don't know is that you don’t always have to tell your employer if you’ve got a criminal record. In fact, there are specific rules about what you are legally required to tell them, and this will depend on:

  • the type of job you are applying for, and
  • the length of time since your conviction.

For most cases, your conviction will be removed from a basic criminal record check after a certain amount of time has passed. This means your conviction has been ‘spent’. How long that takes will depend on your specific conviction (learn more about ‘spent’ vs. ‘unspent’ convictions).

As a general rule, if your conviction is ‘spent’, you don’t have to tell an employer about it. The law is on your side here, as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 protects you from having to tell employers about convictions that are ancient history.

However, if your conviction is ‘unspent’ because not enough time has passed, or if you are going to be employed in a role listed in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions Order 1975), then you will need to tell your employer about your conviction. These are jobs where you’ll have unsupervised contact with children or vulnerable adults, or licensed professions like being an accountant.

The charity Unlock has more detailed information about your rights here.

2. Know what your conviction is

This might seem obvious, but it is really important. When we say ‘conviction’, we mean what is officially on your record. It’s important to check because the name of the offence/conviction may be different to what you think you were charged with initially. It also sometimes happens where the same offence leads to multiple convictions. Sometimes this can make a huge difference to what your options are and what you should tell an employer.

Knowing your conviction and the length of sentence for each conviction is the first step to finding out what is on your record, how long something stays on your record, and what you have to disclose to an employer, if anything. You need to know this so you can know whether you are legally required to tell the employer about the conviction, and to make sure you don’t give the employer wrong information that might contradict what a criminal records check will show.

Once you’ve figured out what your convictions are, and whether they are 'spent' or 'unspent', you’re in a better position to understand how the rules around criminal records checks apply to you.

Having a conviction doesn't automatically stop you from getting a job.

3. Find out how the DBS/disclosure rules apply to you

There are two ways that employers can find out about your criminal record. Depending on the role you’re applying for, they can do both, or neither. In some cases, you may also choose to disclose your conviction without being asked.

1. Asking about your criminal record (such as during an interview or in an application form) - this is known as a ‘disclosure’

Employers are only legally allowed to know about your ‘unspent’ criminal record. These are records that will still actively show up on a basic criminal records check. They do not have a right to know about your 'spent' criminal record, which no longer shows up on a basic check. They might ask you about your spent record anyway, but you are not legally obliged to tell them.

If the employer does ask you about your unspent convictions, they will need to give you a lawful basis for doing so. They should also give you their privacy policy which should let you know how that information will be stored and who will have access to it (learn more about criminal records and GDPR).

2. A Disclosure and Barring Services check / DBS check

An employer can also ask you to submit to a DBS check. There are three different levels of DBS checks, which will depend on the role you’re applying for.

  1. Basic: A basic DBS check can be used for any purpose or role. It will only show unspent convictions.
  2. Standard: A standard check is used for jobs that are listed in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975. These are jobs that are 'professionally regulated’ like dentist, lawyer, or accountant. It will show spent and unspent convictions.
  3. Enhanced: An enhanced check is the highest level of check, which is used for jobs with specific responsibilities, like working with children or vulnerable adults. These are jobs like carer, teacher, or social worker. In addition to showing spent and unspent convictions, an enhanced check will also show any additional relevant information held by police.

Only very specific jobs require standard or enhanced checks, and the employer should only ask you to do the type of check that is appropriate to the role that you’re applying for.

Employers are increasingly recognising that diversity of experience is important, and yours can be an asset to their team.

4. If you have to disclose your conviction, develop a strong disclosure 

If you are legally required to disclose your conviction, or if you decide that you voluntarily want to share that information, it’s a really good idea to prepare what you are going to tell them.

Disclosing a conviction can be a difficult and emotional experience - so find a safe person to practise with. We recommend that instead of focusing on what happened, explain:

  • what you have learned since your conviction, and
  • how you plan to apply that experience to your life moving forward.

For example, you can turn your story into a narrative of learning, of responsibility, and of personal growth. In that case, your disclosure might even show your employer your added values and character.

At Working Chance, our advisers are here to give you one-on-one support to develop a strong disclosure. We generally advise that you give your disclosure verbally and then follow it up in writing. We don’t always advise our clients to disclose – again, this would really depend on your particular case, whether there’s a legal requirement, and whether disclosing would be beneficial to your job application.

5. Apply for the job

When you’ve got all the information you need and feel ready – go ahead and apply for that job! You should never assume that your criminal record will disqualify you from a job. There are all sorts of stereotypes and stigma around what kinds of jobs someone with a criminal record can have. But don’t let those stereotypes and stigma hold you back.

Ultimately the decision to hire you comes from the employer. It’s very possible that after finding out about your criminal record and reviewing your disclosure, they decide to hire you. In fact, many employers are increasingly recognising that diversity of experience is important, and yours can be an asset to their team.

That has been the case for thousands of our clients who have gone on to find their careers. Remember that there are organisations who can help you, including us if you identify as a woman. You can also contact other charities like Unlock.

With those steps, you can strengthen your chances of getting a job, even when you have a criminal record. Here at Working Chance, we believe that no woman should be held back for her past. You can build the future and career you want to lead, and we are here to help you do that.

Disclaimer: Each person’s conviction and circumstances are different. There may be other circumstances that affect your ability to gain employment, such as your other qualifications, competition with other candidates, the labour market, and employers’ discretion. The above advice are general recommendations and should not be taken as legal advice.