Va. Police: Social-Media Policy Is Part of ‘Virtual Character Check’

By Young Ha | April 27, 2012

Recent reports that some employers are asking job applicants for access to their social networks during the hiring process have raised questions about the legal liability of such practice.

This growing controversy is also at the center of proposed legislation in at least two states — Illinois and Maryland — that would ban government agencies from seeking social network access from their potential employees.

Civil rights groups are also questioning the legality of such practice. This week, the Virginia office of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to Virginia State Police, warning that it may be violating federal law by asking trooper applicants to access their social networks during the vetting process.

“Absent a concrete reason to believe that a potential employee is engaged in wrongdoing of which his Facebook account is likely to contain evidence, these communications are simply none of the Virginia State Police’s business,” according to the letter ACLU sent.

‘Virtual Character Check’

But the state police say reviewing applicants’ social media sites is “a necessary part of the overall background investigation process” and that such a comprehensive vetting process is needed to better serve and protect its citizens.

“Providing Virginia’s citizens with the highest quality and caliber of state troopers requires a comprehensive vetting process. The Virginia State Police is a unique public agency in the services it provides; therefore, in today’s society, the virtual character check is just as important as the ‘physical’ character check,” state police spokesperson Corinne Geller told Insurance Journal.

“We feel our investigative background process is necessary and appropriate for the job our applicants are expected to do and the authority granted to such individuals upon being hired on to the Virginia State Police.” She also said that if a person should refuse to sign the waiver, then the process is stopped and the application is taken under review — in the context of the entire application process.

“State police received the ACLU’s letter Tuesday. It’s being evaluated and we will respond back to the ACLU as appropriate. In the meantime, we will continue our existing hiring practices,” Geller said.

At Virginia State Police, the social-media component of its background investigation process for trooper applicants went into effect January 2012. So far, no one has refused a background investigator access to his/her social media sites, according to the state police. “No one, to date, has been refused employment resulting from content featured on his/her social media site.”

With the rising popularity and usage of social media, it became a necessary part of the overall background investigation process, according to the Virginia State Police.

Geller explained that the background investigation for applicants starts with a one-on-one meeting with applicant investigator. At the end of the interview, the applicant is provided a waiver to sign and date that allows the applicant investigator to review that individual’s social media sites.

The waiver also requires the applicant to list all social media sites he/she subscribes to. The applicant investigator hands the applicant a state police laptop and is asked to log on to those sites for the background investigator to review. The investigator does not ask for the applicant’s passwords.

“There has been much discussion among public safety organizations and the International Association of Chiefs of Police — of which Virginia State Police is a member — of how to address the role and importance of social media in the vetting process for future law enforcement professionals,” the spokesperson said.

“State police has followed the same course many other law enforcement agencies have implemented nationwide.”

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