Many employees run quick background checks on candidates by searching for their blogs and social networking profiles. It’s a strategy that can help the hiring process — if it’s done the right way to avoid legal troubles.
Here are the top four ways Googling applicants can lead to legal trouble, according to attorney Joseph Beachboard, speaking at the recent Society for Human Resources Management Annual Conference in New Orleans:
- Caregiver or disability bias – Hiring managers may find information on social networking sites that they would never ask about in an interview — for example, pictures of a female candidate with her young children, or details about the applicant’s struggle with a disability. Even though managers may not think about discriminating against working mothers or people with disabilities, if they know that information and turn the person down, the applicant could have ammo for a lawsuit.
- Privacy violations – A lot of what applicants put online is public. But not everything, and accessing things that are deemed private could get managers in trouble. In one recent case, a group of employees were members of a private, password-protected group on MySpace where they often complained about work. A manager wrangled the password out of a worker, went to the site and fired the creators of the group for “unprofessionalism.” The employees sued, claiming the company had no right to see their private site. A jury agreed and awarded the employees $17,000 in back pay and damages.
- Legal, after hours activities – Several states prohibit employees from denying a job to someone based on their legal, non-work activities. That may include things like chugging booze — though if you can show a connection between the behavior and an inability to do the job, you’re usually OK. But other activities might show up — for example, political protests or union activities — that are more clearly off limits for hiring decisions.
- Fair Credit Reporting Act – If you use a third party service to conduct certain types of background checks, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that you give the applicant prior notice. In some states, such as California, you have to give notification even if you’re doing the check yourself. Does that including checking out someone’s Facebook profile?. Experts don’t know for sure, and probably won’t until a test case is brought to court.
If your managers do Google applicants, what’s the best way to proceed? The biggest key, Beachboard says, is focusing on job-related information only. Give managers a list of what they might look for and tell them to only record information that can legally be used in the hiring process.