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Should You Google That Prospective Employee?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 7/15/2011

If a person posts pictures of his or her beer drinking festivities from last weekend on Facebook, shouldn't you know about it? After all, there's a new business to build. Before you let your fingers get carried away on your computer's keyboard, you might want to think about privacy issues and trust.

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    You Never Really Know Someone...

    Should you use the internet to potentially spy on applicants? ...until you know them. At least, that's how the adage goes. Now, with social networks thrown into the mix and an online presence, you might be able to think you know someone by searching for their personal history online.

    Thus, it can be really tempting to conduct an online search for information about prospective hires, especially as you are building your business, to try to find out as much as you can about your prospective employees as you can before you find out that the accountant takes a little off the top, the administrative assistant is always drunk, and your public relations person posted on his blog a rant about how horrible your company is to work for.

    When you hear horror stories about individuals like Anthony Weiner - with a career as a U.S. Representative - who post sexually provocative images on their social media accounts, you have to really wonder about how an applicant will represent your business.

    While your start-up has not reached the heights of recognition that the U.S. Congress has, you will want to maintain a good reputation for your business. By this token, you may feel that you're justified in using Google, Facebook and blogs to delve into your applicants personal lives. I'm here, however, to offer some reasons why you may not want to pry.

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    1. The Employee's Right to Privacy vs. The Right to Protect Your Business

    Yes, you certainly have a right to protect your business, but have you considered your applicant's right to privacy? Many times, employees post things on their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or blogs without giving too much thought to the implications of what they are saying. They might not be aware that if they do not choose to modify their privacy settings that anyone can view what they have posted online. In these cases, it would seem unduly unfair to dock a prospective applicant due to what he or she has stated. Sometimes people post things in a moment of passion and then wise up about it and delete it. If you happen to search and catch that regretted post, and you base your hiring decision on that post, you might be losing out on a valuable employee.

    Even if the prospective hire's post was not a mistake, it seems unfair to base hiring decisions based upon what you find on Google. That would be like basing a hiring decision on the items kept in a person's bedroom -- although, one might argue that one ought not post online what they would not want a prospective employer to find.

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    2. The Inability to Get Something Out of Your Mind

    Say you find a juicy tidbit posted by an applicant online. If you decide to let it go, and interview that applicant anyway, your mind may go into unsavory places during the interview. It may cloud your judgment of the applicant's actual abilities. By searching for information about an applicant -- even if what you saw was later erased -- you jeopardize your ability to be impartial and focus on applicant qualifications, which are the only thing that should matter when you're conducting interviews.

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    3. The Blurring of Professional and Personal Life

    Say you don't find anything offensive or even strange on the prospective employee's pages. Instead, you find out that you like -- even admire -- the person. You have a lot in common with him or her. In fact, wow, that applicant is really attractive. By doing this research ahead of time, you may find that other applicants just don't have the same appeal -- even if they are more qualified. You may even make up your mind before it's time to interview anyone. This makes it unfair to all those involved.

    Worse yet, you may find that you feel like you know the person even before you make moves to hire him or her for your business. This can lead to making inappropriate comments or requests during this interview. Remember that sexual harassment is a very real problem in the workplace and that there is no place for sexual advances. You don't want to be too familiar with your applicant -- or with other employees.

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    Why You Might Want to Conduct That Search Anyway

    Even given all the good reasons why you would not want to search for your potential employees' Internet presence, there are some instances where you might wish to conduct that search. If you're starting up a PR firm, if the employee will be working with money, or if the employee will be the public face of your business you might want to consider that Internet search - after the interview and all other things have been considered.

    Here are some other tips that might help you to conduct a search online if you need more information before hiring someone:

    • Stick to professional sites. Don't go looking at the person's Facebook page -- unless it's a Facebook business page. Instead, stick to sites like LinkedIn with the intent of verifying information that you already have.
    • Be upfront about searches. If you will be performing a search, be upfront about it. Let prospective employees know what kinds of searches will be performed (credit check, background check, social media search) and what impact those searches may have on their employment.
    • For financial or other sensitive positions, consider using a background search service. These services will provide you with far more information than will someone's Facebook page. Sure, you might see that the individual posted about showing up drunk (or worse) for work last week four times at his or her current job. However, that person may also have been arrested. You won't know that unless you get the official report.
    • Use a search only to verify information. Don't use the search to find out whether the employee is married, see what he or she looks like, or to dig up past drama.
    • Do not hold personal life activities against an individual unless they interfere with an individual's ability to perform his or her job functions. If you do so, you could land yourself in a lawsuit for discrimination. This is one of those things that leads to problem number two -- not being able to get something out of your head -- that could land you in a heap of trouble should you choose not to hire the employee if he or she is otherwise the most qualified applicant.
    • Be very aware of the legal implications of searching. In some areas, conducting such a search may be illegal. Be sure you know and understand the legality of performing an Internet search and reading prospective hires' blogs, social media posts, and background information online.
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    It's reasonable to want to protect your company's reputation. In fact, reputation management companies have grown largely because of the problems with the growing freedoms on the internet. Even so, you'll want to make absolutely sure that you've taken all the possible consequences of conducting a search for a prospective employee online into consideration.

    What are your thoughts? Do you think Internet searches are valuable tools for learning more about potential employees? Or, are they more like sifting through someone's garbage, looking for things that don't really matter?

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    Carpentier, K. A. (December 29, 2009) "Do You 'Google' Job Applicants When Hiring...?" The Global Think Tank.

    Fant Jr., G. (July 6, 2011) "Tracking Digital Footprints" Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Jenkins, R. (March 31, 2011) "Search-Committee Confidential." Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Vaillancourt, A. M. (May 19, 2011) "They Call it Research. We Call it Stalking." Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Worthham, J. (August 8, 2009) "More Employers Use Social Networks to Check Out Applicants." New York Times.

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