Forget Paper Trails: The Internet Has A Longer Memory

A career counselor at New York University, who routinely deals with recruiters from major corporations, said dozens of companies were checking out social networks and personal Web sites before deciding who to hire, according to a
Should employers be entitled to look up their prospective hires' profiles on and other social networking sites? Or has an important line been crossed--both ethically and legally?

A career counselor at New York University, who routinely deals with recruiters from major corporations, said dozens of companies were checking out social networks and personal Web sites before deciding who to hire, according to an article in The New York Times. And when describing what they were looking for, she used some alarming words: "lifestyle" and "core values." What's worrisome is the subjectivity of such words. How easy it would be for an HR professional--no matter what political, religious, or social leanings he or she had--to screen out people on the basis of things that are legally off-bounds.People who say this is absolutely kosher put forth the argument that people should take responsibility for what they voluntarily put out in the online world. Very true. But I'm not sure I agree that gives employers unrestricted license to go behind applicants' backs and get private information they couldn't--legally--get any other way.

Because there are strict laws about what's permissible to ask on an employment application--and many, many restrictions imposed on employers about what they can ask in an interview. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, discrimination falls into the following categories: age, disability, equal pay, national origin, pregnancy, race, religion, retaliation, sex, and sexual harassment.

But with the new online avenues for finding out such things as marital status, whether someone is over 40 years old, or their religious or political beliefs, those restrictions are rendered moot.

What's new about this? After all, it's common practice for employee-seeking companies to pay to do background checks on job candidates' criminal or driving records, or whether they're registered sex offenders. Firms that provide those background checks have been using online resources for years. Moreover, anyone with a credit card now has access to the same services as the largest corporations, and for someone with an ounce of initiative, there are hundreds of online databases at the local, state, and federal government levels to peruse for free.

But now companies are seeking the sometimes very personal "online personas" that people have created over years of Web use. Although the Times article focused specifically on what people have posted on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, this practice encompasses everything from information posted on personal Web sites to blogs, discussion boards, and--more recently--podcasts and contributions to wikis.

Not to mention that more and more people have personal or family Web sites that include everything from photographs to information about hobbies, personal activities, professional accomplishments, political or religious views, and more. As blogging becomes more commonplace, people are expressing their opinions on current events, sports, politics, movies, and what they think of public figures. All this is mostly innocuous, of course--but it's readily there and apparently being eagerly sopped up by people making important decisions about other people's lives, like whether to hire them, admit them to graduate school, or allow them to join a professional organization.

What's being posted on social networks is of special note. Today it's mostly younger people who are thoughtlessly publishing details about sexual (mis)adventures, drug use, or other activities or attitudes that reflect on their immaturity, poor judgment, or worse. But this trend by employers to trawl the Web for information beyond what they get from a resume, job application, or interview impacts more mature individuals who have revealed their opinions, attitudes, or lifestyle choices online.

You see, the problem is, the Internet doesn't forget. There's an electronic trail of such voluntarily divulged attitudes and opinions and activities that's never erased (in doubt of that? check out the Internet archive Wayback Machine) and always accessible by a diligent researcher. And unlike overt privacy violations like stolen Social Security numbers or blatantly unscrupulous trafficking in personal information gathered by online vendors or Web sites, the information in question is being voluntarily posted for all the world to see. So it's a very nebulous area.

What do you think? Do you believe employers are free to access and use any publicly available information to make hiring decisions? Or might they go too far in seeking out such data? Let me know.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing