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The B.C. government’s policy for employee criminal record checks is in violation of provincial privacy rules and must be changed, says B.C.’s privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who released a report on the matter Wednesday. Formerly, Ms. Denham was director of Alberta's Personal Information Privacy Act.MIKE STURK/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government's policy for employee criminal record checks is in violation of provincial privacy rules and must be changed, says B.C.'s privacy commissioner, who released a report on the matter Wednesday.

Elizabeth Denham announced her investigation into employment-related record checks in March of 2011, opting to focus on the B.C. government – the province's largest employer. She concluded that while the checks are valuable when hiring for certain positions, such as working with children or handling sensitive data, "not every hiring decision needs a record check."

"The reality is that criminal record checks and police information checks are highly privacy-invasive," she wrote in the report. "They stand to reveal sensitive personal information about a person's past activities, including prior convictions, penalties or outstanding charges – and in the case of police information checks, details about adverse contact with police, including investigations that do not result in charges and charges ... that do not result in convictions."

Such information could deter an employer from hiring a person despite it being irrelevant to the job, Ms. Denham said.

An estimated 85 per cent of the government's 33,500 employees are required to submit to a criminal record check, according to the report. The government says of about 10,000 employee criminal checks conducted each year, fewer than 5 per cent had a criminal record and fewer than 1 per cent were not hired as a result of a criminal record.

In her investigation, the commissioner found several of the government's "designated position" categories requiring criminal checks to be too broad or otherwise in violation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. She also found it unnecessary that employees are sometimes subjected to multiple checks, such as when transferring to a similar position.

Ms. Denham made eight recommendations in her report. They include that the government: reduce the number of positions that require checks; collect statistics on the checks and publish an annual report on them; retain personal information gathered from the checks for no more than one year; and perform ongoing checks not more frequently than every five years and only when an employee "exercises a particularly sensitive function."

The government will now review the commissioner's recommendations, although it said the policy currently in place is essential in maintaining the trust and confidence of British Columbians.

"Government appreciates the privacy commissioner's review and recommendations concerning government's use of criminal record checks," said government spokesman Jamie Edwardson in an e-mail.

"However, in striking a balance between the privacy interests of government employees and applicants, and the interests of citizens, government will side with protecting British Columbians and maintaining public trust."