In Neiman v. Grange Mutual Casualty Co. (C.D. Ill. 4/26/12), the plaintiff claimed that he was not hired for a position because of his age. The employer argued that it could not have considered the plaintiff's age because it had no idea how old he was when it made its decision. The plaintiff, however, argued that the employer must have been aware of his age because he included the year he graduated from college on his LinkedIn profile.
According to the court, that allegation was enough to get the plaintiff past the employer's motion to dismiss:
Plaintiff alleges … that during telephone interviews, Heindel [the Vice President of Human Resources] did inquire about and confirm the year that Plaintiff and the candidate who was selected for the position each earned their degrees. According to the Complaint, the Plaintiff's interview was conducted in February 2010. It is not difficult to determine that someone who graduated from college in 1989 probably was over the age of 40 in 2010. This is enough to place Integrity on notice that he is subject to the protection of the laws against age discrimination.
Businesses need to understand that without appropriate controls in place, reviewing Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other publicly available online information before making a hiring decision is a risky proposition. These online searches could reveal all sorts of protected Equal Employment Opportunity information that no employer would want to discover as part of the hiring process.
Assume, for example, that the search revealed that a candidate belonged to a group for breast cancer survivors. You can imagine the potential problems (Americans with Disabilities Act and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, to name two) that could arise if the employer passes over this candidate. You would never ask an interviewee if she is a breast cancer survivor, but the unfettered searches of candidates' online profiles could put you in the same untenable position as if you had asked.
I see three possible solutions to this potential risk. You should adopt one of these if you are searching applicants online profiles.
- Don't do online searches. The easiest way to avoid these potential EEO traps is simply not to conduct online searches. That omission from your screening process, however, will deprive you of valuable information you could learn about a candidate, such as whether s/he presents professionally or matches your corporate culture, how s/he communicates, or if s/he has ever trashed a former company or divulged confidential information. In other words, given the wealth of information you can learn, I think you are doing your organization's hiring process a disservice by skipping online searches.
- Outsource the process. Companies are popping up that will conduct these searches for you and return scrubbed reports clean of any potential EEO pitfalls. Of course, because these companies are external to your organization, they add cost to your hiring process.
- Train someone internally. Alternatively, you can train someone within your organization, but extern to the hiring process, to do the same thing that the third-party vendors are doing—conduct the searches and return a scrubbed report to the hiring manager. Your organization will save the cost of retaining an outside company, but gain the benefit of the person making the hiring decision not coming into contact with protected EEO information.