Scanning Social Networking Sites For Employee Background Checks: Avoid The Pitfalls

Share Article

Social networking sites are prime targets for savvy employers who want to evaluate the true personalities of job candidates and monitor the activities of current employees. But employers who search the Internet for information about potential and current employees need to be aware that pitfalls await if personal information is not handled carefully.

It's critical to determine that the information uncovered is about the person in question, and not someone else with the same name

The recent instant messaging scandal in Congress may be an omen. Cyberspace is overloaded with much-too-personal information and now people are beginning to speculate about the long-term impact.

Some of the greatest risks may come from social networking sites like MySpace.com and Facebook.com and video sharing sites like YouTube.com. With millions of members and billions of hits each month, these sites are prime targets for savvy employers who want to evaluate the true personalities of job candidates and monitor the activities of current employees.

College kids and high school students who jockey to become the next YouTube celebrity need to realize that revelations about personal relationships and partying activities may not be in the best interests of long-term career prospects.

But employers who search the Internet for information about potential and current employees need to be aware that pitfalls await if personal information is not handled carefully.

"Currently there does not appear to be any regulation of the use of Internet searches for employee background checks. But that doesn't mean the practice isn't without potential liability," warns labor and employment attorney James Erwin, a partner at Pierce Atwood LLP in Portland, Maine.

Internet searching is relatively easy, yet the reliability of the information uncovered can be questionable. And that certainly goes for information about people and their personal activities.

"It's critical to determine that the information uncovered is about the person in question, and not someone else with the same name," says Erwin.

Employers must then consider how germane the information is to the hiring decision. Does the frequency of party-going in college really factor into the capabilities of a newly minted college graduate eagerly searching for a first job?

"In the past, youthful indiscretions rarely clouded a person's future prospects. Most of us know, or perhaps we even admit to being ourselves, people who did immature things, but ultimately outgrew an interest in that kind of conduct. How much weight should an employer give to information about a candidate's behavior in his or her late teens or early twenties? Employers do not want to misjudge and lose out on someone who might turn out to be an excellent employee." remarks Erwin.

Erwin cautions that employers already need to be concerned with the legal risk of communicating defamatory information and information gleaned from the Internet is no different.

For instance, a company does a web search on a candidate and learns that there is information suggesting that someone by that name has engaged in distasteful behavior. Without checking further to confirm the information's accuracy, the employer decides not to hire that person. Someone then tells others inside or outside the company about the information linked to the candidate. According to Erwin, if it turns out that the job candidate is not the same person, or the information is not accurate, the communication of the information could constitute defamation.

Once Google links its search engine technology to YouTube, it may quickly take the Internet's effect on people's private lives to an entirely new level. Erwin stresses that businesses need to keep in mind that technology continues to race ahead of society's ability to adapt its rules to control for abuses. Searching the personal lives of applicants and employees through the Internet is uncharted territory and the legal rules that apply are from another era.

"Until the law catches up with the technological changes, employers should beware of embracing new tools without giving careful consideration to the risks and benefits of doing so," concludes Erwin.

Pierce Atwood LLP is the largest law firm based in northern New England and has 120 attorneys who serve regional, national and international clients from offices in Portland and Augusta, Maine; Portsmouth and Concord, New Hampshire and Boston, Massachusetts. For more information about the firm, its attorneys and services, please visit PierceAtwood.com.

Contact: Jennifer Whittier

Phone: 207-791-1244

# # #

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

MELISSA FIELD
Visit website