The Internet poses a whole set of unique issues about whether potential employers should be able to use information posed online when considering an applicant. Given the explosion of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as search engines such as Google, an employer could learn more about a potential employee online than during an interview.
It is not uncommon today for human resource professionals and recruiters to regularly conduct online searches on applicants prior to an interview. When conducting such searches it is important to keep this rule in mind: if the online search reveals protected categories of information about the individual, such as race or age, a potential employer is legally prohibited from using that information. Beyond those instances, it is arguable that information on the Internet is fair game.
If an applicant chooses to demonstrate a lack of discretion and judgment by posting questionable pictures on a Facebook page, an employer who finds these images may consider them when deciding to hire the applicant. The applicant has no right to privacy where he voluntarily posts the information for the public to view. These images may cause particular concern if the position the applicant is vying for involves substantial client contact or if the applicant’s online conduct could significantly impact the potential employer.
However, it may get trickier if a third party posted the information. Potential employers must be careful about what information they choose to consider, as it is easy for anyone to post false or misleading information online. Potential employers should use this information at their own risk.
Potential employers should also be careful about what information they consider relevant when considering an applicant. It may be prohibited to reject a candidate based on an online profile that is questionable but does not impact an applicant’s ability to satisfactorily perform the basic functions. An employer may find some behavior unusual, but making personal judgments about individuals’ quirks or oddities based on Internet searches can become a slippery slope. Employers are not in the position to determine what is socially acceptable. Making personal judgments can lead to hurtful stereotyping.
Internet users also need to be careful about their online activities, especially when the activities relate to current employers. Employers are within their rights to discipline or terminate employees caught posting confidential, proprietary, and/or disparaging information about the company or its employees online. Applicants who engage in this type of behavior should not be surprised if they are rejected for a position with a potential employer.
With the growing popularity of social networking sites, online participants should be free to exercise freedom of speech but also need to recognize the potential implications of their behavior. Further, it is imperative that employers who engage in online research understand the difference between actionable conduct and non-actionable.