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Reflection, Not Rhetoric: Should employers do Internet background searches?

Are Internet background searches an invasion of privacy?

Do you have anything to hide on the Internet?

If so, a new article in the New York Times reports, you better be careful. More and more companies are using not only quick Google or Facebook searches, but full-fledged investigations into a job candidate’s internet background, including the deep web.

One company, Social Intelligence, gets hired to performing investigations and then prepare formal reports. According to the CEO, Max Drucker, less than a third of the information comes from places like Facebook and Twitter. The bulk of the information comes from blogs, Yahoo! user groups, bulletin boards, and even Craigslist.

How worried do you need to be?

The article notes that the formal report method may be more fair–and, perhaps, legal–than a quick Google and Facebook search, especially since companies are forbidden by federal law from searching for and seeking information on specific factors. Race, gender, and marital status, for example, are all protected under federal law and employers are forbidden from searching for that information. Drucker notes that his reports not only clear that information, they also ensure that people with the same or similar names are not confused.

Overall, though, should we be concerned that companies are going ever-deeper and searching ever-further into our Internet presences? Should Internet presence be a company’s concern?

Yes and no.

There’s a strong argument that what people do on their own time–especially from their own computers–is their own business. If someone likes to play videogames in their spare time, their posts on World of Warcraft forums shouldn’t affect their job candidacy. (Of course, this is all assuming people stay within the bounds of legality. A person found participating in illegal activities probably doesn’t have much of a defense.)

But of course, people aren’t arguing over videogames and illegal activities. The tricky stuff is this: if someone makes a racist blog comment or a sexist Twitter post, should his or her employer be concerned? Some say no, the employee can say and do whatever he wants in his spare time, but others say yes, the employee is a reflection on the company.

The fundamental problem is that we haven’t yet figured out how the Internet works in terms of visibility, social applicability, and anonymity. I blogged about Internet anonymity a few weeks ago, and the problem of Internet anonymity is also really a problem of Internet visibility.

It’s true that with the Internet, it can be very easy to connect the different pieces of someone’s life. Someone’s videogame side can be connected to their classical music side can be connected to their political side. So it’s absolutely true that what someone says and does on their own time might end up reflecting on their employer.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to keep hidden parts of your online life, and we should all think about doing a better job of separating them. Google+ is built fundamentally on the principle of separating your streams and differentiating between friends. Similarly, now might be a good time to filter through your Facebook profile, organizing friends into lists and setting specific privacy settings.

It’s also a good idea to periodically do your own deep-web searches on yourself, and look into deleting (or distancing) old comments, tweets, or status updates that don’t reflect what you want them to.

In the end, whether we agree or disagree with Internet searches won’t make an immediate impact. Instead, if we clean up our online presences and make ourselves appealing to employers, then the need for services like Social Intelligence disappears. Companies are free to search for us, and we’re free to control what they can find.

Of course, we could always just make sure there’s nothing to hide, right?

For the New York Times article “Social Media History Becomes a New Job Hurdle” that inspired this blog post, click here.

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