Can I Google applicants?

By Joe Bontke

Social media has become the major form of communication for a large portion of the population. An even larger percent of people are “dabbling” in it.

Look around your church office today. Your youth minister is Tweeting. The clerical staff  are on Facebook.  Pastoral leaders are online checking out what other churches are doing. We’re a plugged-in, online, smartphone society, with unlimited information at our fingertips.

Although I work on employment discrimination issues as a profession, I offer only my personal opinion in this article, as well as a few words of caution about the “electronic footprints” we’re all leaving behind every time we post something online.

Proceed with caution
Have you ever thought, What were we thinking when we hired him (or her)? If so, the Internet might seem to be a great way to learn more about an applicant’s likes, experience, activities, writing — and so much more than you could ever learn during a 10-question interview. A simple Internet search might also show personal details that could indicate a lack of professionalism or maturity — use of inappropriate or discriminatory language on a social network page, for instance.

However tempting it might sound, there are some big problems with turning to the Internet for information in an open-ended fashion. The first is accuracy — or the lack thereof. If the applicant has an uncommon name (like I do), an Internet search will probably identify the person correctly, unless he or she has a “mystery double” somewhere. However, it’s still possible that false information could be posted about me for some reason.

My wife of 29 years, Joyce Smith, would have another problem if you searched her name on the Internet. You’d have a hard time identifying the same, wonderful Joyce Smith I married.  Instead, you’re likely to find information on several other women by this name and, as an employer, you might not be certain which person is your applicant. If another Joyce Smith posted photos of herself drunk at a party, you might screen her out and then miss a fabulous employee: my wife (and possibly even the other Joyce Smith, if the photo is outdated, was posted as a prank, or didn’t actually show the other Joyce Smith, either).

In short: An Internet search of applicants might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Beware knee-jerk reactions
Another risk of a quick Internet search is that it’s easy to react too quickly or superficially to information you find — especially photographs — in ways the Equal Employment Opportunity, or EEO, laws tell us not to.

As employees or applicants, we’re told not to put our photos on our résumés, for obvious reasons. “He looks too old.” “She appears to be foreign-born.” “We’ve never had one of ‘those people’ working here.” “She uses a wheelchair, so she’ll be unreliable.” All are examples of the thoughts or comments we might not want to have or to generate, but that still might be elicited by an unguarded reaction to an online photograph. Deciding not to employ someone for any of these reasons would violate federal nondiscrimination laws.

The proverbial “poster child” on the perils of conducting an Internet search on an applicant is the case of Stacy Snyder. While she was a teacher-in-training at a Pennsylvania high school, Snyder posted a photo on her social media page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” Her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of the college where Stacy was enrolled said she was promoting drinking to her underage students. Days before Snyder was scheduled to graduate, the university denied her a teaching degree. She sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her legal after-hours behavior. A federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

Best practices — for employers and applicants
The best advice I can offer to employers is to use an Internet search as only one of the tools in your tool kit when considering a job applicant. The Web can be a valuable hiring tool, if you use it wisely. Collect information from all your sources, including traditional ones — such as references, interviews and applications. Evaluate the information from all credible sources, and talk to the applicant about an issue if you need clarification.

Involve more than one person in the hiring decision, and help each other avoid unintentional assumptions that might lead to discriminatory conduct. In the end, make an informed business decision based on the job requirements.

To applicants, I offer a simple message in the form of this “Twoosh” — a word invented to describe Twitter messages that contain exactly 140 characters. My Twitter policy for employees is this: “Be professional, kind, discreet, authentic. Represent us well. Remember that you can’t control it once you hit ‘tweet.’”

Joe Bontke is the outreach manager and ombudsman at the Houston district office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


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