With the recent explosion in popularity of social networking Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others, individuals’ personal information is more widely available than ever. People post photos of themselves and details of their lives online with almost no hesitation. Although they might intend for their families and friends to see this information, others with an interest can also see it. Chief among these are current or prospective employers. An Internet search about a job applicant can be very revealing, but is it wise for the employer to do so?
A search on a prospective employee can uncover information that is much more in-depth than that revealed on a resume, job application, or in an interview. For example, an employer could find news stories involving the candidate, articles written, critiques of their work, information about volunteer work, and more. Conversely, they might find photos, videos, audio files, or text that present a less positive image. Blog posts that include profane language, photos or videos of wild parties or intimate situations, negative comments about former employers on Web sites — any of these might influence an employer’s hiring decision.
One risk from Internet searches is that the employer might discover information that would complicate a decision to not hire the applicant. For example, an employer might learn that an applicant has children, which may lead them to conclude that they will resist putting in long hours on the job. If they were to decide not to hire the applicant, and it should come out that they did an Internet search, they would have the burden of proving that they did not base the decision on the applicant’s status as a parent. Otherwise, the applicant might be able to pursue a successful action against the employer for discrimination.
Some states prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their legal, off-duty activities. For example, suppose an employer learns that an applicant is actively involved in political causes with which the employer does not agree. The applicant engages in these activities only during non-work hours and their political views are irrelevant to the work duties. The employer cannot deny the applicant the position based on political activities; they must be able to cite a legitimate business reason.
Federal law requires businesses that take “adverse actions” against a person because of their credit history to disclose this fact. Similarly, some states are beginning to require employers to disclose to an applicant adverse information found in public records. Not only is this costly and inconvenient, it raises concerns about the reliability of the information. It might actually pertain to another person with the same name, especially if the names are common. Also, because anyone can create a Web page in less time than it takes to eat lunch, someone with a grudge can post distorted, misleading or false information about another person with ease.
Although these might sound like arguments for not doing an Internet search, there are also risks to that approach. Should an employee someday turn violent or commit other crimes on the job, and the employer could have found information about those tendencies from an Internet search, he could become the target of lawsuits for failing to properly evaluate the employee.
The best approach for employers could be to use an Internet search as one tool among many as they consider a job applicant. Gather information from a variety of sources, including the traditional ones — references, interviews, aptitude tests, and applications. Supplement that with information found on the Internet. Evaluate the information from all credible sources and make an informed business decision based on the job requirements. The Internet can be a valuable hiring tool, if employers use it wisely.