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Working Wise - Social Media Privacy

Dear Working Wise,

I check the Facebook profiles of potential employees to find out what they are really like, but I’ve heard that I shouldn’t do it. Why not? Is it against the law?
Signed, Wondering

April 5, 2017

Dear Wondering,

There is no law against 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 offers 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 can’t 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 be unreasonable under PIPA, especially when there are other ways to get the information that 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 are not 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 Photos may be mislabeled and information may fall out of date.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 1.7 billion active users.

The guidelines developed by the OIPC cover a few other risks including having consent from job applicants to search their social media profiles. Even with consent, you may find it difficult to justify the legitimate business purpose of reviewing a job applicant’s social media pages. And, under PIPA, individuals can withdraw their consent at any time.

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. For more information and advice, visit the OIPC website and read their Guide For Social Media Background Checks.

Photo Credit: © iStockphoto/jakubzak

Working Wise is a syndicated newspaper column prepared by the Government of Alberta to answer work-related questions from Albertans. Do you have a work-related question? You can send it to Charles Strachey (charles.strachey@gov.ab.ca), a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services.

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