Thanks to the widespread popularity of social network sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it’s easier than ever to find personal information about an individual. There’s little hesitation or forethought as users of these sites post everything from their vacation schedules and photos to the most mundane and taboo details of their personal lives. Such information might be intended for the user’s friends and family, but, in many cases, anyone with access to the Internet can see it if they’re looking.
The information an employer can uncover about an existing or potential employee from a simple Google search is often far more detailed and reflective of real life than a job application, resume, and interview combined. On the good side, an employer might find positive articles written by or about an applicant, marks from professional peers, and volunteerism efforts. However, on the bad side, an employer might find unappealing, profane language; graphic videos or pictures; derogatory comments about an employer; or text that clearly shows an unscrupulous demeanor. Good or bad, many of these finding will directly influence an employer’s decision to hire or pass.
Although a quick Google search of a job applicant can be extremely revealing, many employers still wonder if it’s wise for them to conduct one.
One complication would be an employer discovering information that would bias and complicate their hiring decision. Let’s say an employer does an Internet search on a female applicant, discovers that she has several children, and therefore decides not to hire her because her status as a mother might interfere with her ability to put in extra hours at work. If the applicant was to discover that the search was done by the employer and decide to pursue legal action for discrimination, then the employer could be burdened with proving his hiring decision wasn’t based on the applicant’s status as a mother.
Another complication would be an employer using an applicant’s off-duty, legal activities as a basis for discrimination. Let’s say an employer does a search, finds that a male applicant is involved with a political or social cause they don’t necessarily agree with, and therefore doesn’t hire him. Many states actually have laws prohibiting such employer discrimination, meaning an employer can’t legally deny an applicant a position based on political or social views that aren’t relevant to his/her work duties and only take place during off-duty hours. There must be a legitimate business reason for the hiring decision.
Federal law requires employers to make a disclosure if they use an applicant’s credit history to take adverse actions, and some state laws are similarly requiring employers to disclose any adverse information they find in public records about an applicant. Such disclosures are certainly a costly inconvenience to employers. There’s also a question of just how reliable the information is since the information could be pertaining to a different person with the exact same first name and surname as the applicant. Furthermore, it doesn’t take 30 minutes for a begrudged or vindictive individual to create a web page to discredit another individual by passing off false, misleading, or distorted information as fact.
The above points certainly show a liability risk for employers doing Internet searches. However, there’s also a risk in not thoroughly researching potential employees. Let’s say an employer fails to do an Internet search on an employer that later commits a workplace crime. Had the search been done, the employer would’ve found that the employee had a violent past and criminal inclinations. In such a scenario, the employer could face a lawsuit from the employee’s victims for not conducting a thorough evaluation.
When it comes to hiring, the best approach in making an informed, legal business decision is usually to not use one or the other, but rather combine public Internet information with reference checks, interview processes, applications, aptitude testing, and any other credible source of information. Remember, the Internet can be an invaluable hiring tool, but only if used wisely.