Monday, July 17, 2006

At least one Washington intern is glad she did not post unprofessional information about herself on the social-networking Web site Facebook: A potential employer asked a past intern to look up her profile.

Started in February 2004 as a Web site for college students to list their interests, communicate with friends and meet people, Facebook now boasts more than 8 million registered members from universities, high schools and workplaces across the country.

As the popularity of Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking Web sites grows, employers are signing up and logging in to perform background checks on job and internship candidates, or asking employees who are members to do so.

“The Internet’s fair game,” said the intern, an upcoming junior at Barnard College who asked not to be named because she didn’t want to identify the D.C. nonprofit think tank that looked up her posting. She turned down the position offered, she said, but not because of the employer’s actions.

The intern said she created her Facebook profile fully aware of the Internet’s public nature.

“There were no pictures of me drunk on the floor in the bathroom,” she said. “I feel it’s like checking a reference. You just want to make sure you look good.”

A poll released last week found that 26.9 percent of employers check the backgrounds of job applicants by using Google and social-networking Web sites. The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed 254 organizations in the services, manufacturing and government-nonprofit sectors.

Of the employers who said they use Web sites, 41.2 percent reported occasional use, 35.3 percent said their use was infrequent and 7.4 percent called it standard practice.

MySpace replaced Yahoo and Google as the top U.S. Web site last week and garnered 80 percent of all visits to social-networking Web sites, Reuters news agency reported Tuesday, citing figures from Internet tracking firm Hitwise. Facebook received the second-highest number of visits to social-networking sites, a distant 7.6 percent.

Though employers often deny using search engines or looking up profiles, “they do it all day long,” said Tim DeMello, founder and chief executive of Ziggs, a Boston company that creates free online professional profiles and, for a fee, uses search terms to place the profiles at the top of 20 search engines’ results. He said the average Ziggs profile receives 28 clicks a month.

“Whether you like it or not, employers can sit down in the quiet confines of their office, go on the Web and get information on someone,” Mr. DeMello said.

Mr. DeMello, who uses search engines and social-networking sites to check on job applicants, said recent college graduates are more likely to be found through social-networking sites than search engines. He said such sites demonstrate the level of the job applicant’s judgment and give employers insight into their personality.

Fairfax County Public Schools requires that every job applicant complete an employee background information form, be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check, spokeswoman Mary Shaw said. Google may be used for some candidates.

“It’s not the first thing we do, and it’s not for everyone, but [we would use Google] if something comes up that might give us pause before we extend the job offer,” Ms. Shaw said.

Postings on social-networking sites are not limited to a circle of friends, but “the young people who put up information there think that it’s private,” said Marva Gumbs Jennings, executive director of the George Washington University Career Center.

Even the privacy settings on Facebook and MySpace might not protect a job candidate. A friend with access to the profile and photographs could provide the information at an employer’s request. Mrs. Gumbs Jennings said there is a way to access any information posted.

Mrs. Gumbs Jennings suggests to users of such sites: If you don’t want to see information on the front page of a newspaper, don’t publish it online.

“You only have one chance to make a good first impression,” said Nancy Ahlrichs, president of EOC Strategies, which helps companies recruit and retain top-notch employees. “Because it is open to scrutiny, once you know you’re going to launch a job search, you might want to clean up what’s out there.”

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