Water Cooler Blog June 2016: Social media background checks – are they legal in BC?

onli ne

Watercooler Question: Do you have a positive online presence? Yes/ No/ Neither positive nor negative/ I don’t know ::Respond at https://careerlinkbc.com/blog.php 

By Melany Hallam

Like many people in today’s job market, I assume that if I apply for a position, I’m going to be checked out on social media as part of an employer’s hiring process. I’ve seen articles online quoting studies which found that up to 93% of employers will look you up on Facebook or do a Google search on you before making a hiring decision. And there are endless blog posts out there listing “8 Social Media Mistakes That Are Sinking Your Job Search” or “The top 3 things employers want to see in your social media profile”.

You know what I’m talking about, right?

But did you know that BC is only one of three Canadian provinces that has privacy laws restricting this type of search by employers and the subsequent use of your personal information? I didn’t know that either until I started doing research for this article. A legal opinion from McMillan LLP even argues that, in fact, social media checks by employers may be decreasing due to an increased awareness of privacy legislation.


There’s a lot of legal jargon and opinion, but it all comes down to three things: (1) consent, (2) reasonable use, and (3) accuracy (or the risk of inaccurate information).

The BC Privacy Commissioner has published some guidelines for employers who take to cyberspace looking for the scoop on you when you apply for a job. In general, employers in BC need to know that ALL information collected about potential employees is subject to privacy laws. (The other jurisdictions with similar privacy laws are Quebec and Alberta, plus federal government employers.)

What does this mean for you as a job applicant?

Consent to use social media information

  • Know that employers should, at the very least, inform you prior to their online search that they’ll be doing a social media check and what the legal authority is for collecting the information.
  • If you give your permission, under privacy laws you are still allowed to withdraw that permission at any time. This means that any information collected can’t be used to make a decision about you.
  • Employers may argue that the information you post online is “publically available”, but this isn’t the same as information that “by law is public”.
  • All job candidates should be subject to the exact same search in order to keep things fair.
  • One exception to the consent requirement is where a potential employer finds information on you that is related to your current or past employment, such as a photo or account of volunteer work you may have done.


Reasonable use, or too much information

  • A social media search may appear to be just one more way of doing a background check, but the parameters are way outside the narrowly-defined criminal record checks and work reference checks that have traditionally been done up to now. In fact, it’s pretty near impossible for a social media search to be limited to information relevant to a hiring decision.
  • Employers will more than likely end up collecting all kinds of information irrelevant to the position for which you’re applying. Your marital status, sexual orientation, religion, political beliefs and other aspects of your personal life are not relevant to a job application and should not influence a hiring decision, no matter how inadvertently.
  • Outdated information – such as old photos and blog posts – will be out there forever, but you may have changed significantly in the meantime. Employers may specify a search for a narrow time period, but people post old photos of friends all the time, so they can easily be included in a search by accident.


Inaccurate information

  • It’s possible that there are people with the same name as you on Twitter or Instagram, etc. An employer may end up collecting information on the wrong person.
  • An employer may access a social media account set up by an imposter to discredit you – yikes!
  • What about incorrectly tagged photos? Was that really you at that wild party two years ago?

All of these factors open employers up to potential human rights complaints if social media information is relied upon in a hiring decision. But, without a doubt, many organizations will not be aware of the privacy laws in BC and will go ahead and do a social media search on you anyway.

So by all means clean up your social media accounts before you apply for that dream job (and there is a ton of advice out there on how to do it). If you’re unsure about an old Facebook account or blog that you used to write or things that your friends may still be posting years later, why not just ask a potential employer if they’re planning on doing a search on you and have a frank discussion about it? At the very least it’ll demonstrate your awareness of the need for a professional social media presence now and in the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: