The Facebook Employment Background Check Curse

Nick Fishman

Sure, we’ve done our fair share of railing against the use of social networking sites such as Facebook as part of the background screening process.  Evidently, most employers aren’t listening.  In fact, a 2009 Microsoft survey found that as many as 75% of U.S. employers are using this tool to help them make hiring decisions.

We’re not changing our minds on this one and this story that was published in the Washington Post only bolsters our belief that people are unfairly eliminated for things that are beyond their control.  In this story a job candidate was denied a job after one of his friends posted pictures of him drinking and smoking cigarettes. Legal activities, right?  The job seeker made sure that his profile was kept private, but unfortunately, his friend did not.  Fair?  See below.

Miranda Shaw, a manager at a leading consulting firm, is hiring for a senior analyst position. She has narrowed the field to two candidates, Rick Parsons and Deborah Jones, and must make her recommendation to the company’s human resources department immediately. Both candidates graduated from the same highly ranked business school that Shaw attended. Both boast appropriate work backgrounds and shone in their interviews.

However, Parsons is first in line for the job because of his leadership skills, reputation for tireless energy and great communication skills. Before making her final decision, Shaw decides to Google both candidates.

. . .

On one Facebook page, Shaw found an album of pictures showing Parsons drinking, smoking cigarettes and – in his words – “smokin’ blunts” with college fraternity brothers. The page belonged to Parsons’s friend, who had not enabled his privacy settings.

When Shaw Googled the other finalist, Jones, she found only work-related sites that listed Jones as an effective project manager.

Parsons’s online photos caused Shaw to rethink her choice and to grapple with the slippery boundaries between public and private life.

THE RESOLUTION: Shaw concluded that Parsons would not fit in with the company’s professional work environment and her team. She could not waste time or money on hiring the wrong person. Yet she wondered whether she arrived at her decision fairly. After all, Parsons had not offered the information willingly, and he had set the appropriate privacy settings on his own Facebook page. Also, Shaw had not disclosed that she would conduct a background check online.

THE LESSON: Many people do not realize the extent to which their friends and associates could harm their online reputations. For example, friends who post and tag photos with their name and online identity on Facebook and elsewhere may have much more open privacy settings. Whatever is publicly accessible becomes public information, no matter who uploads it. It is more efficient for HR professionals to conduct online searches than to conduct reference checks, so this is a growing dilemma for companies.

Before posting information and photographs on Facebook, remember that in the virtual world, our houses are made of glass. Every piece of data is permanent and stored in a digital archive. More than half of employers cite provocative photographs as the biggest factor in the decision not to hire.

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Nick Fishman
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Nick Fishman

Nick Fishman is the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, a leading, global employment background screening provider, and serves as the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. He pioneered the creation of EmployeeScreen University, the #1 educational resource on employment background checks for human resources, security and risk management professionals. A recognized industry expert, Nick is a frequent author, presenter and contributor to the news media. Nick is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio and Texas.
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