For the past couple of weeks I have been trying to wrap my head around a story I read about a newly instituted (and now temporarily suspended) employment screening policy of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. In addition to the usual requirements—you know, fill out an application and undergo a rigorous background check—they "request" that an applicant offer up his or her social networking login and password information.
The Department contends that the policy was designed to more effectively screen prospective applicants to ensure that the only guys with gang affiliations within their walls are their official guests and not employees.
[Consumer Guide: Specialty Consumer Reports—Employment Screening]
As reported by NBC's Washington affiliate, one of many news outlets which carried the story, Robert Collins was an employee of the Department and in 2009 when his mother died, he took a leave of absence. When his leave was up, he applied for a position at another facility within the department and was in the process of being re-certified for the job. During his interview, according to Collins, the interviewer "demanded" his Facebook password and full access to his account. Eager to rejoin his former Department, though he felt it was a total invasion of his privacy, he complied.
According to an interview on WCSH6, Mr. Collins said, "He logged into my account and went through my pages, my posts, my messages, all my pictures, things like that," he said.
At the conclusion of the interview, he left the building and visited the ACLU. They interviewed him, wrote a letter to the Department, made a video and released it into the ether.
In their letter, the ACLU asked why there was a blanket policy that applicants had to offer up their social networking particulars—especially since—to their knowledge neither Mr. Collins nor the members of his cyber community had attempted to, or frankly wanted to, "friend" the government of the state of Maryland.
The Department responded that no applicant was automatically required to provide that information. I imagine that the typical scenario goes something like this: Interviewer: "Are you an active user of social media?" If the answer is in the affirmative, then the applicant is "asked" if he or she would provide the information.
It's like an employment breathalyzer test. It's a "voluntary" job hurdle, like employer review of credit reports and drug tests. You are free to refuse but if you do, leave this office and follow the yellow line down to the front door. Have a lovely day and productive career … working for someone else.
At least that's how Mr. Collins felt.
In the face of the ACLU campaign, the MDPSCS announced it was suspending the policy for 45 days to evaluate.
Douglas Gansler is the Attorney General of Maryland. He was neither consulted when the policy was instituted nor when it was placed under review. That's not surprising. Frankly, in the world of state government, where I worked for five years, the Attorney General (in whose Department I slaved for those five years, albeit in the great state of New Jersey)—like a spouse—is often the last to know in cases like this.