Dear Working Wise:
I check the Facebook profiles of potential employees to find out what they are really like, but I heard that the government is telling employers not to do it. Is that true and if so, why? Signed, Disappointed
The Alberta Government is not barring employers from using social media to perform employment background checks.
However, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta (OIPC) has cautioned Alberta organizations to ensure they are not violating the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) when conducting background checks using social media.
PIPA is Alberta’s private sector privacy legislation that governs the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information by organizations.
The OIPC has released a set of guidelines to help Alberta organizations understand their responsibilities under PIPA when using social media to collect personal information for employment checks.
The guidelines include risks, advice and tips employers may want to consider before conducting social media background checks.
Using social media for employment background checks is risky, because you cannot limit the amount or type of information that you collect.
Privacy laws require organizations to only collect information that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances.
Social media searches can reveal too much personal information, including information that is irrelevant to the job, information about other people, and information such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, marital status, religious affiliation, etc., which are protected grounds under the Alberta Human Rights Act.
Collecting personal information that is not relevant for the purpose of recruiting an employee may not be reasonable under PIPA, especially when there are other ways to get the information you need, including resumés, references, and job interviews.
A second risk is that the information you collect from social media sites may not be accurate. PIPA requires that organizations take steps to collect accurate personal information.
Social media sites may not be guaranteed to be accurate. Photos may be mislabeled and information may fall out of date. There is also the chance that you may review the wrong person’s profile.
TechCrunch.com found there were 76,000 John Smiths on Facebook back in 2009 when Facebook had only 200 million users. Today, Facebook has 800 million registered users.
The guidelines developed by the OIPC cover a few other risks including having consent from job applicants to search their social media profiles.
The OIPC advises that Alberta organizations need to carefully assess their ability to be compliant with PIPA prior to using social media sites for background checks.
Organizations should not use social media to perform background checks if doing so would result in non-compliance with PIPA.
For more information and advice, visit the OIPC website at http://oipc.ab.ca and read their Guide For Social Media Background Checks.
Do you have a work-related question? Send your questions to Working Wise, at email@example.com. Charles Strachey is a manager with Albert Human Services. This column is provided for general information.