Question:

I run a local business and have recently been trying to staff some open positions. When I receive a resume the first thing I usually do is look the applicant up on the Internet to see what, if anything, I can find out about them! Usually I find things that are pretty innocuous, but occasionally something pops up (like a blog entry, or a photograph) that makes me wonder whether this is someone I want to actually hire. Is there anything wrong with what I’m doing? Is it OK to find out this kind of thing about job applicants, and to use it in making my hiring decisions?

Answer:

In the age of what is known as “Googling” someone, I can tell you that what you’re doing is not at all uncommon. In fact, thousands of employers regularly use the Internet to get information about prospective employees. This can include everything from verifying someone’s academic history or credentials, to finding out what organizations they belonged to in college, to looking to see whether they have a “MySpace” page.

The reality is that there is a lot of information available on the Internet these days—some good, some bad. Many commentators have come to refer to the type of information you can dig up on someone as “digital dirt,” since it is often possible to find out things about an individual that they might not otherwise disclose. “Digital dirt” isn’t always necessarily negative—it could include things as basic as information about someone’s likes or dislikes, their hobbies, or a personal profile. However, many individuals carelessly post information on websites without realizing that it could come back to haunt them at a later date.

For example, there have been cases in which employers skimming the Internet for information about prospective employees have encountered indecent photographs, profanity in text that the individual has posted, confessions of illegal activity (e.g., drug use or shoplifting), and/or romantic indiscretions. Many people post about their social lives—including their sexual activity—on websites such as MySpace and Facebook because they think it’s fun or entertaining. In fact, posting this type of content is now so common among many young adults that individuals often don’t think twice about the things they are putting up for public consumption. However, while a photo of someone chugging beer or dancing on table tops in college might seem funny at the time it is posted, most prospective employers will not be impressed by these antics, or by the individual’s decision to publicize them.

The reality is that, when faced with a variety of job candidates, employers tend to shy away from those with “digital dirt.” Many companies have ruled out candidates—and some have even rescinded job offers—because of what they were able to find out online about prospective employees. Some of the more objectionable content cited by employers as affecting their hiring decisions has included misstated academic qualifications, radical political views, off-color jokes posted on personal Web pages, and negative comments about former employers. The problem of “digital dirt” has become so widespread that college career offices have actually begun warning students that recruiters monitor their online information. In a competitive job market, students need to know that they are putting themselves at a disadvantage by giving prospective employers access to unflattering or unprofessional information about them.

So now that you know you’re not alone in searching for this type of information about job applicants, the question becomes whether there is anything wrong with looking for (and using) the information that is available. The simple answer is no—“digital dirt” is part of the public domain, and is readily available to anyone with basic access to it. By posting information in the most public of forums—the Internet—individuals lose any expectation of privacy that they might have had with regard to that information, even if it is very personal in nature.

That said, employers should keep in mind that everything on the Internet isn’t necessarily true, and that third parties can post comments or information about an individual (sometimes on that person’s own website or blog) that might be intentionally negative or inaccurate. Employers should also be careful not to engage in any discriminatory conduct when obtaining information about their job applicants. For example, if an employer only did Internet searches on female job applicants, or on those of a particular race or religious background, such conduct could constitute unlawful discrimination in the hiring process. Similarly, only using this type of information against a particular group, rather than applying it across the board to all prospective employees, could be discriminatory as well. Assuming that you run these types of Internet searches on all of your job applicants, however, and that you use the information consistently, there is nothing wrong with digging up whatever “digital dirt” you are able to find, and taking that information into account when making hiring decisions.
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