DPSCS Refines Social Media Inquiry Policy for Correctional Officer Applicants

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Towson, MD (April 6, 2011) - In late February, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) temporarily suspended for review its practice of requesting information about use of social media from individuals applying for the position of correctional officer and other institutional security-sensitive positions. The goal was to ensure this policy was being applied evenly across all applicants and that it was clearly understood by all staff responsible for interviewing candidates.

The review revealed the suspended policy could be improved to more effectively communicate to applicants that inquiries into social media participation were voluntary.

Effective April 1, 2011, the Department has adopted a revised policy on background investigations, including clarification on the appropriate procedures for inquiring into use of social media. Candidates will be asked to voluntarily participate in the review of any social media applications during the initial interview process (more details below). Candidates will not be asked to share their login and/or password information.

Applicants for correctional officer and other security-sensitive posts may be denied employment due to criminal history, prior drug use, and a variety of other factors, including information gleaned from social media sites. Questions about social media activity are asked during the background investigation for the purpose of eliminating candidates who may engage in illegal activity or have gang affiliations.

In a limited number of cases, the review showed that the inquiry into social media activity was an effective tool, aiding in the discovery of disqualifying behavior by the applicant. The Department reviewed a sample size of 2,689 applicants, or approximately one year’s worth of applications. Of those, seven applicants were denied employment due, in some part, to social media content. One candidate was denied solely due to social media content. This candidate, along with others in the sample, utilized social media applications which contained pictures of them showing verified gang signs.

During the review, the Department found no indication that an applicant’s refusal to share social media information had a negative impact on the applicant’s chances of employment. Of the 80 applicants who were offered jobs in the last three hiring cycles, five chose not to, or were unable to share information about their social media participation.

Based on best practices of other law enforcement agencies, the new policy was written on the advice of, and vetted by, DPSCS counsel within the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.

The new policy states the applicant will be informed that the portion of the interview dealing with social media is completely voluntary. DPSCS personnel will communicate this to the applicant both orally and in writing. The applicant will be required to verify an understanding of this policy by initialing a written statement which also makes clear that he or she may decline further questioning on that topic.

Training on the new policy and procedures has been conducted. DPSCS personnel responsible for applicant interviews during this process are required to fully understand the policy and are expected to communicate it effectively.