Sharing personal information on social networking websites has become commonplace. But with more employers considering a person's online presence as part of their resume, the practice is raising questions that recently prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia to take action.
Last week, the group sent a letter to the Virginia State Police criticizing its policy of reviewing a candidate's social network sites — including those hidden behind privacy settings. State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the step is now "a necessary part of the overall background investigation process."
But it's not only police departments that are being pressed to determine whether checking social media sites of prospective employees is appropriate.
Lester Rosen, founder and CEO of Novato, Calif.-based Employment Screening Resources, has followed the national debate over virtual background checks, including a recent statement by Facebook's chief privacy officer that advised users that they "shouldn't be forced to share private information and communications just to get a job."
"Employers are wrestling with this," Mr. Rosen said. "Some employers won't do it, other employers won't hire without it."
An employer looking to the Internet for answers about a possible hire, he said, is like "looking for a small needle in a very large haystack." But it can also work as an easy way to rule out a candidate.
"If an applicant knows their Facebook is going to be looked at, and they leave something on there that's incendiary or obscene, that really shows a lack of judgment," Mr. Rosen said. "On the other side of the coin, if you don't lock the door to your house, that doesn't mean a burglar has the right to come in."
In 2009, a survey of more than 2,600 hiring managers conducted by online job site CareerBuilder.com indicated that 45 percent of employers used a social networking site to vet potential employees — more than double the percentage in 2008, and a step in a direction officials said likely won't change anytime soon.
"Social media has become integral to how we communicate, and as a result, there are an increasing number of employers using these sites to screen candidates," said Ryan Hunt, senior career adviser for CareerBuilder.
Not every company has embraced the trend.
Robert Half Technology, which is part of the global staffing firm Robert Half International, does not conduct social media checks, D.C. branch manager Barry Downs said, but the firm advises its candidates and clients to see the significance of personal sites.
"On the candidate's side, we try to get them to understand their media profile is going to be representative of themselves," Mr. Downs said. "I think it's important for companies to remember, it's not always the most accurate representation of someone who can be a great employee for you."
ACLU Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg said a general search of public material could be permissible, but the police department's check on private information "is akin to listening in to someone's private conversations just in case they might reveal to have unsavory associates."
Shawn Connelly, a spokesman with Sparks Staffing and Recruiting Solutions in the District, said his company stays away from asking an applicant about their social media use.
"It's too much gray area," Mr. Connelly said. "You wouldn't want to touch on discrimination."
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