Internet Background Checks: Hazardous to Your Wealth?

Employers who hire based on doing their own online background checks could be looking at wrong information … and trouble.

You think you’ve finally found the right candidate for that important job opening. The resume read like a good book, and one with a happy ending. The interview left the hiring manager looking starstruck. Now all you have to do is reference check.

A decade or so ago, that meant laborious calling, but now there’s another tool available. You pull down that “favorites” menu and click on what used to just an odd-sounding math term  … Google.

Go ahead. Tell us you haven’t “googled” job candidates. After all, it’s so easy to know, in .23 seconds, a whole world of information about them. The same goes for anything put up on such user content-generated websites as Facebook or MySpace.

But if you choose to use such tools, watch out, says the law firm, Bacon & Wilson, P.C. on its blog,

In an article titled “Employers: Be Frugal When You Google,” B & W points out that employment decisions made off Internet information can get your professional standing deleted. Here’s why:

—-Invasion of Privacy. This is not a legal issue, in most cases. Anything posted on the web is public domain, leaving little of what the lawyers call a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But people don’t like their privacy invaded. Ask your candidate if he or she can really “party all night long,” and you’re likely to find they’ve taken their festivities to a competitive employer.

-—Discriminatory Information. You’d never ask applicants their age, religion, nation of origin, or sexual orientation, but you may find all those facts on open display on the web. You reject the candidate for legitimate reasons. But when the EEOC complaint is filed, and a lawyer asks you under oath if you’ve ever seen this information on the web, you have to admit you have. Then go ahead and prove this did not factor into your decision.

-—Outdated Information. Search sites may not post the date of the information they find. It could be from today, it could be from a decade ago—if the original source material isn’t dated, you just don’t know.

—-Stolen Name. Search engines do not ask for ID when they pick up a listing. B & W points out that anyone can post just about anything about anyone, and even do so under the other person’s name. How can you trust what you read? You often can’t.

—-Same Name. Especially if your candidate is a “Jim Brown” or “Sarah Jones,” you could very well be reading material on someone else with the same name. We “googled” Jim Brown and found the famous football player, an engineer, a novelist, and the Louisiana insurance commissioner, among 996,000 entries. Not all the same person, it seems. Sarah was rarer—only 378,000 entries for … them.

At its current stage of development, the Internet has been compared to the Wild West. That was a place where hired guns did well. “Hiring guns” need to be more careful.

If a background check is needed, “do not cut corners by trying to do it on your own,” says B & W. “The risk of acquiring erroneous or protected information may not balance in your favor.”

Do Online Recruiting Legally!
A new way of hiring brings new legal risks. Learn about the legal issues in e-cruiting in a special April 19 BLR audio conference, The Secrets of E-Cruiting: How to Boost Your Online Results and Reduce Your Legal Risks. Can’t attend? Preorder the CD. Click here for more information.