Friday, June 20, 2008

HR experts now question whether employers should peruse applicants' social networking profiles and jobs: Is IT "safer"?

A Career Management Post on Tech Republic this morning (by Toni Bowers, head blogs editor, on June 20) refers to a recent article in Workforce Management about social networking sites. The article challenges the popular and somewhat careless practice of employers checking Myspace, Facebook or social networking profiles or blogs of job applicants, often with search engines, sometimes finding comments made by others. Workplace counselors and companies like “Reputation Defender” have been encouraging job applicants to “cool it” online because of this practice.

The Workforce Management "Research Center" article, called “Facebook Faux Pas”, by Alan Rupe, maintains that employers could face lawsuits if they do not hire and the blogs or social networking profiles contain information (which they often do in practice) that would be illegal workplace questions in an interview. One point seems to be not so much that it is illegal to ask, it is illegal to base employment decisions based on the material.

The article suggests that aggressive an plaintiff’s lawyer would look at an applicant’s blog or profile after a not-hire decision and serve a complaint even if forbidden interview questions were imputed by the blog.

The Tech Republic blog entry ("Employers who check out job applicants on Myspace could be legally liable") is here. The Workforce article is here. The full content will require that the visitor register (free), and the visitor will be given an opportunity for a paid subscription to the magazine or to more content.

There will certainly be disagreement with this view. Other observers have suggested that people in visible positions will be asked to allow other companies to manage their “online reputations,” and online reputation management may become (or already is) a new kind of business.

Some time back, Human Resources Magazine weighed in on this issue with a measured recommendation. I have written on this problem on other blogs, for example here.
I have previously said that people who have certain kinds of job responsibilities (making decisions about stakeholders, being the spokesperson for the company publicly) should accept third party management of their person public online presence (at least, that part which is accessible to search engines). So see, that sounds like basic business ethics. I had an interesting conversation with a testing company in 2003 about this point.

It should be borne in mind that the First Amendment protects speakers from government censorship, but by itself if does not address "censorship" by private interests like employers (or landlords, for that matter). But anti-discrimination law and other law (like hostile workplace) would apply to private employers and other private accommodation interests. One "good question" would be, how is "unfavorable" information assessed when the applicant voluntarily (and perhaps gratuitously) posted in a public spaces available to search engines? In some employment contexts, such online public postings (even from home) might be viewed as implicit voluntary statements made in the workplace. Another good question would be, how do companies know they identified the right person? (Sometimes they don't.)

Information technology jobs, in compared to positions in more “social” areas like sales (as in insurance) or, particularly, public school teaching, may not seem as vulnerable to concerns about personal web activity. That would particularly be the case for “individual contributor”, technical and non-management jobs. But often “staffing companies” hire people to go to work on client sites for extended contracts and could be concerned that the “online reputation” of the contractors could affect their business.

I wonder if other visitors have run into this yet.

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