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Caution Advised When Using Social Networking Web Sites for Recruiting, Background Checking

Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook can contain details about candidates that make employers think twice about hiring them. But this treasure trove of online data also can amount to a Pandora’s Box.

November 14, 2006
Using social networking sites for background checking has emerged as a new tool for recruiters and employers, but it may be a risky one.

    Web sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook can contain details about candidates that make employers think twice about hiring them. The Web pages people create there sometimes include racy photos and videos, images of drinking or other compromising information.

    But this treasure trove of online data also can amount to a Pandora’s box, says George Lenard, an employment attorney with the St. Louis-based law firm Harris, Dowell, Fisher & Harris.

    By looking at the highly personal sites, employers can inadvertently learn about matters such as candidates’ age, marital status, medical problems and plans to start a family, Lenard says. These topics typically are off limits in job interviews because they can be grounds for discrimination suits if people aren’t hired.

    Seeing such information on a social networking site conceivably creates the same liability problem, Lenard says.

    "There is such a thing as having too much information when it comes to making employment decisions," he says.

    There’s also the question of whether conducting background checks on social networking sites violates their terms of use. MySpace, for example, explicitly bans noncommercial use by members, and another policy suggests that a recruiter could run afoul of the site’s rules if they gather data on a candidate and share it with others in a company.

    MySpace, for example, states, "The MySpace Services are for the personal use of Members only and may not be used in connection with any commercial endeavors except those that are specifically endorsed or approved by MySpace.com."

    The policy also says, "Except for Content posted by you, you may not copy, modify, translate, publish, broadcast, transmit, distribute, perform, display, or sell any Content appearing on or through the MySpace Services."

    MySpace says its terms-of-use agreement applies both to visitors browsing the site and registered members.

    Representatives from MySpace, which is owned by media conglomerate News Corp., did not return requests for comment.

    Facebook’s user agreement also suggests that looking up member information for hiring decisions could be a no-no.

    "You understand that the Service and the Web site are available for your personal, non-commercial use only," the Facebook terms-of-use document states.

    But Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker says background checking at the site can be kosher. She says an HR official who is a registered Facebook user is free to look at the profile of another person if they are part of that person’s social network and the person’s privacy settings allow it.

    "It is not a violation of terms of use if one Facebook user views the profile of or communicates with another Facebook user," Barker said in an e-mail. "And in general, we do encourage users to exercise personal responsibility when posting information on Facebook."

    Still, Steven Rothberg, president of the CollegeRecruiter.com Web site, warns employers not to use Facebook as part of their background checking process. Organizations doing so risk a serious backlash, says Rothberg, whose site aims to provide information to students and recent graduates seeking employment.

    "Employers which are found out to be using Facebook will likely find that they instantly change from being an employer of choice amongst college students to an employer of last resort," Rothberg wrote in an online recruiting forum this May. "Students infer that their postings to Facebook are private and won't be accessible to employers or other such commercial interests. They'll feel violated and outraged should they find out that an employer has been using Facebook as part of a background checking process."

    The debate about background checking at places like MySpace may die down if young people start polishing up their online identities.

    A startup company called Naymz aims to give a person the ability to control what others find when searching for his or her name on major search engines. Tom Drugan, a Naymz co-founder, has written a report titled "Not Just Your Space--The College Student’s Guide to Managing Online Reputation."