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How to get a job with a criminal record: From applying to sharing your conviction

Here’s how to put your best foot forward if you choose to disclose your convictions.

“No matter what has happened in your past, that should not dictate your future." Image: Unsplash / Dylan Gillis

Getting a job with a criminal record can throw up a whole host of challenges, but things are changing for the better for people with convictions looking to rebuild their lives.

Almost 12 million people in the UK have a criminal record, according to charity Unlock. That means that while offenders are in the minority, a criminal record is far from uncommon.

Shortages of labour that have been felt across the country in sectors from hospitality to transport, public services and the NHS, mean some employers are widening their net to include applicants they may not have given a proper chance to before. 

Working Chance, which helps women with convictions into employment, has seen an “exponential rise in employers knocking on (their) door.”

“The great news is that all this new interest from employers is turning into real jobs for the women we support,” Richard Rowley, the charity’s head of strategic partnerships told the Big Issue. 

“We have seen an increase in recruitment in sectors, including hospitality, retail, utilities, charities, creative industries, and science and tech companies. This reflects where the labour demands are, but it is also encouraging to see the many sectors that are now diversifying their recruitment.”

Having a conviction does not automatically prevent you from getting a job, or a good job either, but the laws and practices around employment and criminal records check can be very confusing.

However, there are steps that can be taken to make sure you know your rights, disclose your conviction in the best way possible, and set yourself up for success. Here’s what you need to know if you have a criminal record and are looking for a job. 

Is it harder to get a job with a criminal record?

Prejudices about people with convictions do remain, and some employers may have preconceptions or lack understanding when it comes to hiring someone with a criminal record. But many companies are starting to become more aware of the benefits of hiring a diverse workforce with a range of experiences and backgrounds. 

Charity Unlock, which campaigns for equal treatment of reformed offenders, has found the vast majority of national companies continue to ask about criminal records at the job application stage. However, none of the construction companies and only half of the car manufacturers surveyed by the charity did so. 



In her role as an employment adviser, Alex Clarke says she sees all kinds of people. “People who are university educated, people who have come from different countries, it massively varies… it’s not just a single type of person from a single type of background that has experiences of the criminal justice system,” she said.

“With the rise of corporate social responsibility, we’ve seen a massive change in employers’ attitudes towards people with convictions. They are recognising that diversity is really important for their businesses.”

How can you find out what’s on your criminal record??

Finding out what is on your criminal record will really help when it comes to knowing what you will need to disclose to a potential employer. The name of an offence or conviction may be different to what you think you were charged with initially, or in some cases, the same offence can lead to multiple convictions. This information will also enable you to find out how long the conviction will stay on your record.  

You can find out what is on your criminal record for free by doing a subject access request to the police. This will give you a copy of what is on your police record. This can be done through the ARCO Criminal Records Office

You can apply for a DBS check on yourself through the Disclosure and Barring Service. A basic DBS check costs £18, and will show any unspent criminal convictions. It usually takes around 14 days to arrive. 

There are three types of DBS check:

  1. Basic. This will only show unspent convictions, and is the type of check used for most jobs. 
  2. Standard. This will show spent and unspent convictions, and is carried out for professionally regulated roles only. 
  3. Enhanced. This check is necessary for jobs that involve working with children or vulnerable adults, such as carer, teacher, or social worker. As well as showing spent and unspent convictions, it will also show any additional relevant information held by police.

How long does a criminal record last?

Cautions for some non-violent offences will be filtered after six years, which means that they would no longer show up on a basic DBS check.

Some types of convictions and cautions also become spent after a period of time. This means that you no longer need to declare them when applying for a job, mortgage or insurance. But if you fail to disclose an unspent conviction, you could be prosecuted.

What is the difference between spent and unspent convictions?

A conviction becomes spent when a certain amount of time has passed, at which point it no longer shows up on a basic DBS check. How long that takes depends on your specific conviction.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 gives people with spent convictions and cautions the right not to have to disclose them when applying for most jobs, and buying insurance.

Some examples of jobs that are exempt from the act, meaning that employers may need to know about convictions even if they are spent are:

  • Jobs which involve working with children
  • Jobs in the legal system
  • Jobs in healthcare
  • Jobs in accounting
  • Some transport jobs (such as taxi drivers)
  • Jobs with animals (such as vets, and RSPCA workers)

Spent convictions and cautions will not show up on a basic criminal record check, but they do remain permanently on your police record. 

You can use Unlock’s disclosure calculator to find out when your criminal record becomes spent, and whether you need to disclose it to employers and others. The calculator is only accurate for people living in England and Wales, and will not save any identifying data about you. 

Do you have to tell your employer if you have a criminal record?

Research published by Unlock in 2018 found that one in five employers are asking for information related to criminal records that they are not legally entitled to, so it’s important to know your rights. 

It is a common misconception that you have to tell your employer if you’ve got a criminal record, but you don’t always. Whether or not you are legally required to tell them will depend on:

  • the type of job you are applying for
  • whether your conviction is spent or unspent

For most jobs, employers are only legally entitled to know about your unspent criminal record. Unspent convictions will show up on a basic DBS check, as the specified amount of time until they become spent has not yet passed.

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In jobs that are not professionally regulated or that require you to work with children or vulnerable people, an employer does not have a right to know about your ‘spent’ convictions. They might ask you about your spent record anyway, but you are not legally obliged to tell them.

For jobs that are professionally regulated, such as dentist, lawyer, or accountant, or that work with children or vulnerable adults, an employer will need to do a standard or enhanced DBS check. This will show spent convictions as well as unspent ones.

How to tell a potential employer you have a criminal record

A spent conviction will show up on standard or enhanced DBS checks, so you may wish to disclose this information to your employer first. This will give you the opportunity to talk about it, rather than them learning the information from a document. 

“Disclosure can bring out a lot of anxiety for a lot of people. It can be really difficult and emotional,” said Clarke. 

“But instead of writing it or saying it as a version of what has happened in the past, you can turn it into how you have turned your life around and how you have learnt and taken responsibility for a certain point in your life. It can be a really good opportunity to show a potential employer how much you have grown in quite a short period of time.” 

There is no right or wrong way to disclose, but you will need to name the conviction that you have received, however Clarke advises giving as little detail on the conviction itself, and focus on what you have learnt or achieved since. 

When thinking about what you are going to say, Clarke advises: “First, give a little bit of context to what happened in your life that led up to the conviction. Then tell the potential employer what you were charged with or what your sentence was. And then spend the majority of your time talking about all the fantastic things you’ve done with your life since that time.”

If you can, it is best to disclose verbally and face-to-face, advises Clarke. Sometimes you will have to do it via an application form, which is why spending a lot of time either writing or preparing a really good disclosure is definitely worth your time. Employment advisors at Working Chance can help you to do this. 

Can you be refused a job because of a criminal record?

Yes, you can. However, it’s very possible that after finding out about your criminal record and reviewing your disclosure, an employer will decide to hire you. 

“No matter what has happened in your past, that should not dictate your future. Everybody deserves to be in a job that they love,” said Clarke. 

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Historically, industries such as healthcare and education have been harder to get into if you have a criminal record, however “​​strides are being made to try and be more inclusive, especially from organisations like the NHS.”

Working Chance has helped many women get jobs in the education and healthcare sectors, so it’s always worth sending off your application

How do campaigners want to change the criminal records system to make it easier for people with convictions to find work?

Charities are calling for a law change on criminal records with the aim of improving employment opportunities for thousands of people who committed offences when they were young.

Each year around 10,000 people receive a prison sentence of less than one month, and while this will disappear from a basic criminal record check after a period of time, it will remain on a standard or basic DBS check forever. The campaign argues that people should not be forced to reveal shorter prison sentences – defined as one year or less – to potential employers.  

“Our outdated system requires them to disclose cautions and childhood convictions, which can significantly reduce their chances of getting hired due to the stigma. This traps people in their past and prevents them from moving forward positively with their lives,” Nina Champion, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, told The Big Issue. 

“There have been some recent changes to the criminal records disclosure system, which are a step in the right direction, such as reducing the length of time in which some people will have to disclose their criminal record. 

“But the government could go further so that convictions for minor offences do not appear on standard and enhanced criminal records checks. A separate approach should also be taken for childhood criminal records with regular review mechanisms.” 

Where to get help when looking for work with a criminal record

Working Chance offers help and advice to women with convictions to develop the confidence, skills and self-belief needed to find jobs and build careers. They also work with employers including Pret A Manger, and Redemption Roasters to help ex offenders who identify as female find work placements that can lead to long term employment.

Unlock offers comprehensive information and support for all people with criminal convictions. The charity runs a helpline, open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, on 01634 247350.

Bounce Back offers training for people while they are still in prison in a wide variety of construction industry skills including Painting and Decorating, Dry Lining, Scaffolding. The organisation seeks to “fill the skills gap in the construction industry and act as a “go-to” for the construction industry who know they can come to us to get much needed, enthusiastic employees.”

Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service,Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.

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