Background checks for jobs raise privacy concerns

Has an employer ever asked you for a police information check? That employer may be getting a lot more than just your criminal record. B.C.'s privacy commissioner is investigating the issue and looking for public comment.

If a potential employer asks for a police check, they may get more information than thought

B.C.'s privacy commissioner is asking for public input into what she says is an increasing trend of employers requiring police information checks that could include incidents such as suicide attempts.

"One individual had had a mental health apprehension — a suicide attempt — and when she tried to find a job doing regular office work, what came back was 'suicide attempt' written on the bottom of the police information check," said Elizabeth Denham in an interview with CBC Radio's Rick Cluff on The Early Edition.

"She's been unable to get the job, so my concern is that this kind of stigma is following individuals and is going to frustrate them in their ability to find employment." 

As a result, Denham has launched an investigation into whether the practice violates B.C.'s privacy laws.

She says most police departments no longer offer simple background checks.

Instead, Denham says that when requested, police provide a more comprehensive "police information check" that includes:

  • Warrants for arrest.
  • Information about adverse police contact.
  • Investigations that do not result in charges.
  • Information related to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
  • Information about an individual's mental health.

Police say they use discretion

The Vancouver Police Department declined to comment on Denham's investigation.

Release of this information is limited to serious incidents that reflect a tenor of violence.- Vancouver Police Chief Constable Jim Chu

However, a Jan. 14 report to the police board says that Vancouver police provided police information checks for 15,825 people last year.

Forty-nine of those included the release of mental health information.

"The VPD does not take lightly the disclosure of an incident with a mental health element," reads the report from Chief  Jim Chu. "Release of this information is limited to serious incidents that reflect a tenor of violence."

Abbotsford police Const. Ian MacDonald said police never release information directly to the employer.

"So the individual always controls their information, and always can make an informed choice as to who would receive it subsequently," he said.

Denham's office is accepting public comment on police information checks until Feb. 21.

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