Archive for March, 2012

Facebook Checking Job Candidates – Fair Game?

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “Rear Window”, the protagonist, played by James Stewart, watches his neighbors through his apartment window. When he believes that he has witnessed one of his neighbors murdering his wife, he asks the advice of a police detective. After examining the evidence, the detective explains “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do things in private that they couldn’t possibly explain in public”. Yet, how much responsibility should a candidate have regarding their personal life? In this age of social media, can a person’s Facebook posts eliminate them from contention for a job?

A California company called Social Intelligence offers companies a full background check on potential employees, including information on their social media posts. Social Intelligence’s practices have been approved through the Fair Trade Commission, but they have drawn fire from Senators Richard Blumenthal and Al Franken who posit that “there are numerous scenarios under which a job applicant could be unfairly harmed by the information [Social Intelligence] provides to employers.”

It is easy to understand why employers would welcome such practices. We live in a time where workplace violence has become commonplace, and employers must exercise caution in hiring potentially dangerous employees. Social Intelligence says that their reports can tell of racially-motivated remarks, indecent photos, drug use or gang activity, but they can also bring out a candidate’s history of community volunteer work and their online presence. All of the material in Social Intelligence’s reports come from publicly available internet sources, and eliminate all “protected class” information such as race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and disability status. All of the material is checked by human operators before being passed on to the client.

Does Social Intelligence go too far? Many privacy advocates believe so, stating that an employer should not have the right to judge a candidate’s character based on their social media history. Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum goes even further, telling the Silicon Valley Mercury-News, “I believe that [it] chills free speech. If everyone thinks that to get a job they have to have a perfectly clean social networking site, no one will say anything to anyone.” Even some recruiters and employers have come out against the practice, calling it “dubious” and “ill-advised”. The ACLU is also involved, noting that an employer who gets access to a candidate’s social media pages will also have access to that person’s friends and social contacts.

The practice of social media background checks is a hot topic, and one that will doubtlessly lead to intense legal battles. Any employer that wishes to use this practice would be well-advised to use extreme caution and to have the research done by an outside firm. Prospective candidates should also be careful about what they post online and how it may reflect on them. It is indeed a secret, private world, but you never know who might be looking.  – Thomas Cunniffe