Friday, December 16, 2011

Don't google-up prospective employees

Alberta’s privacy commissioner is warning employers that vetting potential employees by using information found online may contravene Alberta’s privacy laws. You can view the very thoughtful and earnest advice provided here.

This is an interesting development but note that, out of the roughly 2 million employees in Alberta (tens of thousands of whom went through a hiring process last year), the privacy commission has one active complaint.

Now it could be that almost no employers google up potential applicants. But my sense is that this is a common practice. More likely, the lack of complaints reflects that potential employees are unlikely to know how their employer vetted them this way or that this may contravene their rights. And, as the vulnerable party in the employment relationship, are unlikely to complain even if they did know these two things.

We see a similar dynamic operating with Alberta’s child labour laws. Enforcement is complaint driven but the potential complainant (the child and the parents) basically don’t know their rights and don’t complaint, thus child labour is rampant (but hidden).

The privacy office has no real capacity to go out and proactively investigate instances of such violation. And they have no capacity to respond to any huge rush of complaints in a timely manner. The upshot is that Alberta employers can break this law with impunity.

This example is part of a broader problem with employment-related law in Alberta. The crux is that the government does not adequately resource (or politically support) effective enforcement of laws that constrain employer behaviour. This creates the veneer of state-protection but the reality is that these rights are hollow ones for workers with little labour market power (which is most of us).

-- Bob Barnetson

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