Yes, some background checks can go a little bit too far (Editor’s notes)

Employers must tread carefully around social networks and privacy

It’s hard to imagine anything as important to an organization as making the right hiring decision. Get the best person in the door and you’ll put the company in a position to thrive for years. But, if you make the wrong call, it could cost the company dearly on many fronts — employee morale, company reputation and the bottom line, to name just a few.

That’s why background checks are so critical. In 2006, Statistics Canada mined data from its 2001 Workplace and Employee Survey to find one in eight recent hires reported undergoing a security check and about one in 10 reported undergoing a medical exam. Security checks were most common for people seeking professional jobs, notably health workers and teachers. Drug tests were reported by about one out of every 50 recent hires.

To give some historical perspective, before 1980, about 25 per cent of people underwent a medical exam, while only five per cent were subjected to a security check.

But, the world is a very different place now than it was before that data was collected in 2001 — the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hadn’t even occurred yet, which was a game changer on many fronts.

Statistics Canada doesn’t have any fresh data, but there are plenty of vendors offering background checks that do. Some firms claim up to 40 per cent of background checks reveal at least one serious red flag. Montreal-based Garda says seven per cent of job candidates have criminal records, the same amount have an education discrepancy and 22 per cent have falsified resumés. One in 10 candidates experience financial problems.

Anecdotally, there’s no question companies have become more stringent about conducting background checks and better, in general, at due diligence in the hiring process. So it would stand to reason — by any measure — that more companies are conducting background checks now than in 2001.

But are employers going too far in the quest for the perfect hire? Thanks to one Montana city, the answer to that question is an unequivocal, and emphatic, yes.

The City of Bozeman, a community of 30,000 people, wanted all job candidates to list “any and all current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, MySpace, etc.”

That on its own was fairly controversial. Where it became completely indefensible is the city also wanted candidates to hand over user names and passwords to any such websites.

Bozeman initially stood by the policy. The municipality takes privacy rights very seriously, but it needed to balance those rights with the city’s need to ensure employees would protect the public trust, Greg Sullivan, the city’s attorney, told a local television station.

“We have positions ranging from fire and police, which require people of high integrity for those positions, all the way down to the lifeguards and the folks (who) work in city hall here,” said Sullivan. “So we do those types of investigations to make sure the people that we hire have the highest moral character and are a good fit for the city.”

But once word, and outrage, about the policy spread, the city, unsurprisingly, backpedalled. Chris Kuluski, the city manager, announced the immediate end of the practice and he offered up an apology.

“The extent of our regulation for a candidate’s password, user name or other Internet information appears to have exceeded that which is acceptable to our community.”

HR has a difficult tightrope to walk when it comes to background checks, between respecting privacy and conducting due diligence. As social networks proliferate, and younger workers who don’t know a world without them join the ranks of the employed, employers will have to tread carefully to avoid not only legal problems but scaring off much-needed talent.

At least Bozeman drew a line in the sand HR knows it should never cross.

Latest stories