Social Networks as a Form of Background Screening

Professional and social networking sites like MySpace, Linked In, Facebook, and YouTube are proliferating at an exceptional rate. Consequently, many employers are now looking online at the social networking profiles of prospective candidates. And if online profiles display provocative comments relating to alcohol consumption, drug use, and or sexual exploits, few employers would arguably ignore the information.

Candidates may question the ethics behind such character checks, and although the legal and privacy ramifications of using social networks for background checks are currently being debated in the workplace and no doubt in the courts, the bottom line is that self-published information on the Web is generally considered to be in the public domain and fair game for any onlookers—employers included (as long as an adverse employment decision doesn't violate workplace discrimination laws).

In essence, in a world of user-generated content, which the Web has created, every consumer is now a publisher (think blogs), expert (think Wikipedia), critic (think, and broadcaster (think posting videos on YouTube). And, according to TMP Worldwide, whereas Web 1.0 connected people to information and Web 2.0 connected people to people, then Web 3.0 represents an open source where everybody is connected to everything. Therefore, all sources of free information can be seen now as fair game.

Candidates, especially earlier-career millennials, are well advised not to publish anything on the Internet that could reflect poorly on them in the foreseeable or distant future. That's because Web entries and blogs, much like e-mail, can't really be destroyed once they've made their way into the Internet's intricate and endless web of connections. On a positive note, candidates can use blogs and social networking sites wisely to affirmatively build their visibility and credibility as expert resources in their fields.

Yes, there will always be the challenge of ''entity resolution''—Is the John Smith whom you re now researching online the same John Smith you re planning on hiring? However, the trend is clear: Companies will increase their use of online searches, including personal information that they re not supposed to have access to. As a result, many employers may likely end up using non-job-related information about candidates private lives in making employment decisions, whether they are conscious of it or not.

The how-to of conducting social networking and blogging checks on prospective candidates will depend on each website s instructions and membership rules. It may be as simple as doing an online search for someone s first and last name using a common search engine like Google or Yahoo to see what organic search results surface. Most companies would agree that that s fair game because it s open territory. On the other hand, you'll have to decide for yourself whether you'll want to create accounts on some of the more popular social networking sites in order to participate in the social network background-checking game.

In addition, before you rush to create accounts on some of the more high-profile boutique sites, like Flickr, Friendster, Twitter, Wink, and Xanga (all accessible by employing a www ___ com protocol), remember that they all have privacy notices limiting use. Your company will therefore need to consider whether the manner of obtaining such material is consistent with privacy laws. Furthermore, it s an ethical question whether the company or its recruiters choose to formally register with such sites (i.e., creating user names and passwords) in order to access membership information versus simply relying on the open Internet (e.g., Google and Yahoo search toolbars) for general data mining.

Finally, employers have an obligation to be reasonable in terms of how they use and collect information that may be available to them. Simply speaking, it is the employer s duty to not use any information that the company should not have. An employer should likewise consider whether such online content is reasonably related to the requirements of the job. Otherwise, the consideration of extraneous information that is not a valid predictor of job performance may create a source of liability.

Proceed with caution, therefore, so as not to unfairly jeopardize an individual s candidacy via mistaken cyber-identity, privacy violation, or possible discrimination. And remember that people do indeed learn and grow from past mistakes and indiscretions.

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