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How Far Should a Job Background Check Go?

Posted by susabelle at 10:49 AM on February 23, 2011

As I am now on the prowl for a new job since I am being laid off from my current one, I’m thinking about all the things that could go wrong.  My credit might not be good enough, and is that speeding ticket I got a couple years ago going to be a problem?  And what about my online presence and activities?  How much of that will be a determining factor?  How far, really, will an employer attempt to go to dig into who I am and what I do with my life?

In the case of the Maryland Department of Corrections, background checks now require applicants (and those getting recertified or taking promotions to new jobs) provide their facebook username and password.  I, personally and professionally, think this is  a step too far.  What’s to stop them from asking me for my email accounts and passwords, and the usernames and passwords of any accounts I may have on a news website, blogging site, or forum or bulletin board?  At what point will they want to know what I watched on television last night, what YouTube videos I may have searched for, and what political, religious, or medical terms I may have Googled last week?  Where does the invasion of privacy end?

I purposely set my facebook privacy settings pretty high.  I am careful who I friend, and careful whose profiles I post on.  In other endeavors, I do blog on several websites, under my name, but none of these are likely to be issues, I don’t think.  I have other blogs that I post to that do not use my name at all, for good reason.  And my emails?  Well, aren’t those privileged communications too?  It would be like a potential employer asking for the box of love letters I keep under my bed that were between my husband and I when we were courting.  Pretty rude, even at just face value.

The ACLU has sent a letter off to the Maryland DOC asking them to cease the practice, and they have agreed to suspend it until they have given it a closer look.  But it seems to me that it should have never been a policy that was implemented in the first place.  While I understand the need to be sure that a potential employee is not a danger to the job, clients, or organization, I think there are limits on what it is okay to ask people to provide.  Yes, we should all be careful what we post online, who we connect with, and what information we give out.  But when it comes to personal communications, I think those need to be completely off-limits to any potential employer.

Would love to hear thoughts and comments on this.

One Comment

  1. From Ken at 12:50 pm on February 23, 2011

    It seems a bit extreme to require usernames and passwords for any site, Facebook or something else.

    I guess more direct ways of handling problematic issues with employees, is to have them sign something about things not condoned by the company, and offences that one could be discharge for. Like, company policy is that at sponsored events you may not do things that shed a bad light on the company (which would have to be rewritten into legal-ese). Stuff like that.
    This seems to address the issues the company might have directly, rather than hunting around for “something”!

    Although, I am not sure I would be comfortable with this either.