Employers, Get Outta My Facebook

When considering job applicants, prospective employers have no business poking around their profiles on social networking sites. Pro or con?

Pro: Web Profiles Aren’t Résumés

Imagine posting a picture of yourself in a Halloween costume on your MySpace (NWS) or Facebook profile at the risk of killing your career. Or having your employment hinge on whether a hiring manager likes your views on abstinence-only sex education.

One could argue that if you choose to make your profile public, everything you post is fair game. But that view defies the purpose of social networking sites. A public profile is a vehicle for casually interacting with others in an informal setting, on personal free time. When companies use these profiles to find not only a professional but also an ideological match for a job, they’re misleading themselves and building ill will with talented prospective employees, who might decline to apply for a job for fear a comment about China on their blogs makes them persona non grata.

What happens if an applicant charges she was rejected because a hiring manager didn’t like that her profile identified her as a vegan Democratic atheist who enjoys basket weaving? If those things have nothing to do with her merits as a professional, she may have a legitimate complaint.

Even worse, an employer could unearth inaccurate information. Because few social networking sites require verification, someone with a grudge against an applicant might set up a profile designed to viciously smear him. Without a subpoena to examine the IP address and ID of the profile’s author, prospective employers might end up making decisions based on slanderous information.

Also, let’s remember that people use the anonymity of the Internet to portray themselves as they want to be seen rather than as they really are. With a few pictures and a strategic paragraph, a shy and quiet intern-to-be can easily make himself look like a party-hopping raver. In his bid to meet exciting people and liven up his nightlife, did he cost himself a job because a hiring manager thinks he’s too wild and crazy to work in a corporate setting?

Job seekers already have to contend with background screens, drug tests, credit checks, and verification of employment history, education, and income. Is adding an ideological litmus test of an online identity really necessary? What should companies care about more, the professional skills and merit of an employee or what her favorite beer is?

Con: It’s All Part of the Package

Obviously, employers should not use information obtained from Facebook, blogs, or other Internet sites in ways that would be intrinsically unethical or illegal. But there are lots of situations in which such sites could be used legitimately in hiring decisions, and there’s absolutely no reason employers shouldn’t check them as a normal part of the hiring process.

Employees in sales, public relations, and customer service function as representatives for the companies they work for, so employers have a legitimate interest in ensuring potential workers won’t embarrass the company.

More important, a job applicant’s well-crafted online persona can serve as an asset, acting as a kind of extended résumé. In many white-collar occupations, a candidate can use his Web presence to demonstrate passion and depth of knowledge for his or her area of expertise. When hiring a writer, for example, I’d be more likely to choose one who had a blog (assuming it was well-written) than one who did not, even if I disagreed with some of the views it contained.

Similarly, a programmer, for example, can enhance his application by keeping a blog that demonstrates his contributions to open-source projects, handiness with gadgets, or knowledge of the technology industry. Ultimately, developing an appealing Web presence is a part of portraying oneself in an attractive manner—no different from wearing a freshly pressed suit and proofreading your résumé.

Of course, in most cases, employers won’t find out anything at all about a job candidate. And when they do find information, they should keep in mind that some of it might be inaccurate or give an incomplete picture.

But the bottom line is that a public Facebook page is just that: public. People are responsible for what they post. It’s unreasonable to make personal information available to the whole world and not expect employers to look at it.

Facebook gives users the option of keeping their profiles private, and so does blogging software such as LiveJournal. Users should take advantage of these options for information they don’t want considered by potential employers. But if applicants choose to make information about themselves available to the world, they can hardly object when employers take that information into account in hiring decisions.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Ian Hendry

I think this isn't the issue the media likes to make it out to be. Anyone likely to be going for the sort of job where the employer researches each applicant isn't, in my view, dumb enough to be posting pictures of themselves all over the Web and sharing them with anyone. MySpace and Facebook both allow an individual to restrict access to information to only those people they approve first, so where's the problem? You get a friend invitation from your prospective new boss, and you ignore it. Problem goes away.

Incidentally, sites like LinkedIn allow users to post their résumés, so they could be useful tools for seeing whether what they claimed to have done in the version they have sent you is backed up online. It could also be used to authenticate the validity of references, although I am not sure whether it legitimizes contacting alternative references.

Ian Hendry

AJ

As long as you post it, it is fair game. I think the rule of thumb is that if you would be ashamed of it, don't post it.

You have a right to your opinions, but as with religion and sexual preference, your views on political parties should not be a determining factor of being hired for a job. If you can't prove that your potential employer made the decision not to hire you because of your risque Halloween costume, then you can't complain. You might want to think twice before you post something that may be inappropriate, though.

There are plenty of privacy settings if you want to contribute some non-PC materials.

TedNugent

You have to consider more than just "professional skills" when hiring a person.

RBhakta

The thing at heart here is the mere fact that, with enough pictures, anyone can make a profile of anyone. Just Googling my first name brings up several pictures of me for any malicious misappropriation. A few libelous words and wham, you have yourself an alter ego.

Ed Techie

Consider the non-Web equivalent: What would you think of a potential employer that drove to your house to gauge your "status" and neighborhood and how meticulously you kept up your house? Sure, the street view of your house is public, but only a sniveling employer whom I would never work for would stoop to such tactics. Similarly, researching our non-professional Web presence is a sniveling investigation tactic that will turn opinionated employees involved with public life into milquetoast drones. Despite your wishes, employers, we have lives other than work. You employers and HR types always shove "diversity" down our throats, but when you find objectionable "diversity" about us in our non-professional Web identity, you use it against us. I reject companies and leaders in companies who would stoop so low, and conversely I cherish companies and leaders who value genuine "diversity" like my "bible thumping, pro-life, pro-gun, right-winger" diversity that "rejects special rights for gays" or special rights for anybody. Even if it costs me a job, God will make it even in the end. Get some backbone, employers, and learn that salt-of-the-earth employees are better suited to today's business challenges than mindless "yes men" drones who worship your feet.

BTN

Given that there are all sorts of "privacy" options on Facebook, it's less about the specific info and much more about things like judgment and discretion

Daren Yoong

I believe companies should do their due diligence wherever possible, while taking the information from sources such as Facebook with a grain of salt.
--Daren Yoong

jbm_thestateofaffairs.com

Hiring a new employee is by definition discriminating against the candidates not being hired. The question is what information can be used to make these decisions. Most blogs and social network profiles are personal projects. I think it is reasonable for corporations to do legal background checks (analyze official state/federal criminal records), but it does not seem reasonable for a company to delve into people's personal lives including their blogs. What an employer wants to know, the employer should have to ask in an interview. Additionally, most companies limit the interview conversation content in order to keep it objective and applicable. The biggest "intrusion" into a candidate's personal life is typically the question about personal hobbies. One can argue about the validity (I have heard that musicians tend to do well with certain jobs), but also the employer asks these questions openly and it is commonly volunteered on résumés.

RC

Simple, it is in the public domain. Fools' names and fools' faces are always seen in public places. If you don't want it known, don't put it in a public place. It is an insight into one's judgment and how this judgment could reflect on one's ability to represent an employer.

Day

I think any employer that would not hire me for a picture they saw on my Facebook or for the content of something I posted is not an employer I would like to work for at all. Whatever I post on Facebook is indeed public domain, but people have had private lives since the beginning of time. The only difference now is that the employer can see more of it. How does an employer's being able to see it change how much of a professional, trained employee I am? It doesn't.

Alexandra

Your personal life is your personal life. What you do at work is what the employer owns. So many hiring managers are relics of the past--burned out, in a rut, long overdue for new challenges--that all they know about "management" is what they see on the proliferation of cop shows; hence, they are parole officers keeping tabs on the inmates.

Doug Terry at terryreport.com

Anything that is generally accessible is fair play. If you don't want it known, don't publish it. If you thought it was really clever to show yourself half nude and drunk when you were in college, you shouldn't be surprised when other people see it and don't like it as much as you do. Whenever anyone hires someone else, there is always the question: Is this person as responsible, friendly, and decent as he or she seems? Snooping is when you go searching for information you have no right to have by looking in private places. Opening a file that millions of others can see is not snooping.

It seems the generation now in, and recently out of, college wants to establish some sort of new "rule," whereby the rules are only what they believe is right. Under this assumption, you should be able to do anything at all on Saturday night, as long as you show up and are reasonably able to work on Monday. Organizations, not just corporations, have always been concerned about the behavior of people associated with them. It is not entirely fair, but it is part of an implied social contract. Additionally, private actions almost always have an impact, even if they don't cause headlines or scandal. If someone regularly gets drunk, people assume that person might not be as responsible, generally, as he or she appears.

Greg Fish

I find it very interesting that many of the replies essentially say that because the information is there and can be viewed, it's fair game and because employers want to, they might as well look, you should consider making your profile into a second resume or make it private. There are also a number of hyperboles regarding pictures of nudity and intoxication, which are great as an extreme example, but are hardly applicable to many cases.

There are several issues with such stances. I've tried to outline them in my original essay by highlighting the purpose of a public profile, and that purpose is the networking part of "social networking." The whole point is to meet new people, and how can you do that if you're forced to turn off your profile for the viewing public? You might have an opinion on what picture of yourself or what descriptions would make you seem like an interesting and fun person. But what if an employer decides that your pictures show a slacker who only has partying on the mind and your attire is improper because it's too casual to fit in with his firm's formal image of dark suits and white, starched collars? Why take the chance and meet new people at the cost of a job? Might as well turn off your profile or make yourself look like a banker with no social life to speak of. Either way, you loose a part of your personal pursuits.

The second, and to me perhaps the most disturbing, is the idea that as an employee of a company I must be forced to answer for its public image. It's not that I don't understand that people are what make a company and how they behave can contribute to its public image, but it's unreasonable to place such an obligation on an employee 24/7 for as long as he or she is working at the company in question. Somewhere, the work day has to end and personal life must begin. In that personal life, how can someone expect that an employee will always follow a company sales script or recite the company's mission statement with the passion of a prayer in a bar or at a party with friends? Worse yet, how can someone insist on such a code of conduct in an employee's personal life without even a tinge of sarcasm?

If I'm no longer able to appeal to new people as someone who has more than just work on his mind and I must behave as if I'm in sitting in on a sales meeting when I'm with my friends, when does work end? I've already spent years attached to a company phone that could easily ring on a weekend or late into the night. Now I can't even cut loose after work is done and projects have been wrapped up? Does the only truly free time to just be me happen when I sleep or I'm home by myself? This issue is so much deeper than just whether someone should or shouldn't view your online. It's about how far a company should be allowed to pierce the barrier between work and personal time. I could also mention that while companies want their employees to blur the line between personal life and work, they often refuse to give them any say in what projects are undertaken and how they're managed, but that tangent is an issue in its own right.

My generation has also been blamed on making up its own rules about work and life, but the truth is that employers are usually the ones making new rules and we're trying to adjust. With so much information available to them, companies are prying ever deeper into what makes us who we are, screening, judging, questioning, and verifying. The open social networks are the Wild West and employers dive right to see just how much information they can get, seemingly not worried that these actions make us, their potential employees, question if there's anything sacred for them anymore. Why do they have the right to know everything about us, but we don't have the right to step out in the world and say "I'm me, I'm a person" instead of "I'm an employee of Acme Corp, maker of fine products since 1922, please see my card"? Just because something is out there, why should you look? Because you want to? Because you can? Because you can only see an employee ID number, a salary, and an ROI rather than a person with skills to contribute? And why should I identify myself as an employee of Acme Corp first and foremost?

The employees who truly define the image of a company are the executives, and it's their words in the press and their messages in ads that build the image that seem to be such a critical part of many of the replies. I highly doubt that there has ever been a company suffering a PR crisis because one of its employees went out for a few drinks with friends and posted a picture of himself or herself playing pool in a bar on a personal profile. But if there is, I'd like to hear it and so would companies like Enterprise and E&Y, who reject the idea of going through online profiles of their job candidates.

John Wooden

I agree with many on this issue. If it is posted, it is fair game. However, companies (at least mine, anyway) recognize the importance of face-to-face relationships. As a society we need to realize that these "social networks" provide a good way to keep in contact with people who we have not seen in a long time. But they are not a substitute for meeting someone face to face and having a real conversation.

My company has adapted by interviewing the people first, then asking their permission to access their profiles. This takes care of any suspicious actions taken by a company to find fault with the applicant. Moreover, it allows us to see a physical reaction when we ask for permission.

Meeting and getting the person first is more important than reaching conclusions based solely on the fictitious or nonfictitious person they decide to be online.

Paul

I think the whole issue can be resolved with one comment, and your reaction to the comment will indicate how you view employers evaluating your online presence: Big Brother is watching.

Do you like the idea that Big Brother is watching you at work, at home, and now online? If you do, go work for an employer who invades every aspect of your life. If you do not, let them know.

One poster here, apparently an HR person, says his company asks permission to view the online profiles, and watches the reaction. What if the reaction was that "my personal life is none of your business"? Fair, and perfectly legitimate as a response. If that was a reason to not hire the person, then I truly hope that this company finds its available labor pool radically diminished, to the point of being unable to find willing employees.

For me, I would say the same about all companies who would feel it reasonable to invade my living room or my friends' living rooms or my home computer or anything else that had nothing to do with my work or my professionalism.

Mr. Grit

Come on, get real.

At the end of the day, prospective employers will do whatever the heck they want to find out information on a prospective employee, regardless of whether others say they shouldn't. And if a negative decision comes down, the prospective employee will always get some politically correct response that provides absolutely no information as to the real reason for the rejection.

Yes, there are public abuses of these sites. Yes, we can argue both sides of whether the company should or should not. But at the end of the day, it's one person's gut-level feeling about whether they should hire another one, mostly for the purpose of making money. If the impression is good, congratulations. If not, too bad, so sad.

While we as a nation claim that we're trying to be fair, it's all a sham: People will go to whatever level their own personal limitations and cleverness allow them to get information on another person. It's reality folks. You're not as invisible as you once were or as you'd like to be.

If I don't want to hire you because you've got a zit on your nose and that I don't agree with your religious beliefs and that your ancestors don't have my skin color, and oh yeah, your Facebook makes you look like a doofus, tough. Is it discrimination, unfair, even against the law? Yeah, so?

If you ask me why, I'll come up with some BS reason that will get past the PC police and the legal snares. Bottom line: You get nowhere, and I hire who I want, for the reasons I want.

If it's out there, people will use it. Period. Welcome to the dark side of human behavior, and unintended consequences.

Ed Techie

Well said, Mr. Grit. I have two follow-up points. (1) Considering the corporate scandals always happening, we employees should be more concerned about the reverse: Do we really want to be associated with these companies that are led by cheating, lying, CEOs (or government leaders like Eliot Spitzer)? (2) Many posters (probably human resources snobs) have been saying, "If you don't want it online, don't post it." That is a stupid point of view. First, a lot of personal information can be found that we did not directly post, i.e. if we happen to be a (volunteer) Town Selectman, and controversy erupts with the firemen or police department or recreation department, we get blasted in the online newspapers. Second, what if employers just do not like that we are Democrat or Republican or Protestant or Atheist? Since we employees have lives outside of work, the Internet will soon have details about us, i.e. if you lead a church choir or whatever and it gets in the news. Sniveling employers will discriminate against us for whatever they want or can. Therefore, I promote corporate policies that insist online queries about employees not be allowed by human resources and hiring managers. My down time is my down time. Stay out of my life, employers.

JJackson

Interesting discussion, but I agree with Mr. Grit.

There have been some stories on the downside of your public persona:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20202935/
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_13/b3977071.htm
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/03/12/EDGC7N734K1.DTL

This whole social network thing creeps me out. I've turned down invites to join MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., and will continue to do so. Seems to me that a lot of people need these networks as some sort of stamp of approval or group belonging. I don't have those needs, and I don't like to share my private information. I just think that the stuff you post will come back to bite a lot of people in the arse in their future.

Imagine the stuff investigators will be able to dig up about you in the future should you run for political office, want to get a secret classification from the government, or are under consideration for a high-level corporate job.

Make no mistake, many companies will try to check on you, with or without your permission. But it is not only companies that you need to worry about. All parts of the government (local, state, fed) certainly use all available sources of information if they are interested in someone, researching a crime, etc. Divorce lawyers also.

Identity thieves and other scammers are finding online info, including resumes, very useful. For example:
http://www.jobkite.com/media/pough.htm
http://idtheftsecrets.blogspot.com/2007/08/monster-identity-theft-impacts-16.html
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3078533/print/1/displaymode/1098/

My ROT is never use my real name and never post my resume, root e-mail address, photo, or basically, any identifiable info online. I mainly use disposable e-mail addresses and often, different pseudonym's wherever a registration is required. I've made many thousands of posts on the Internet over the years but none under my real name. I do regularly Google myself and thankfully, there is nothing to be found. And I like it that way.

Scott M

Come on, people. There is a simple solution to this issue: Don't use your full name on your Facebook or MySpace page. Then your employer can't find your page by Googling your name. Problem solved.

You want to meet new friends? Fine. They can meet you under your online name, and find out your real name later.

I might point out that most people posting here (including me) aren't using their full names. If you use your real name online, then you're just asking for problems.

Kristen Olson

In a world where everyone knows everything about everyone--or at least this information is accessible--I think this problem will disappear.

Let's face it, we may be having a hard time now with being harassed regarding our online profile--in the same way that people writing in blogs were harassed five years ago for posting their actual thoughts about other people.

But the ultimate policy on this is what we determine it to be. We are going to be in the low-ranking management positions in another five years or so. We will be the ones hiring people.

What do we think about this as employers?

My personal feelings are: Tough luck to anyone who thinks I ought to fire someone for personal behavior not on company time. I might lose out a little in the beginning, but time and the profits of facing reality are on my side.

Kristina Cowan

Thanks for shedding light on this increasingly relevant topic. I'm curious to see how the issue plays out in the future, as workforce demographics shift with baby boomers coming upon retirement age and Generations X and Y taking on more leadership roles.

I examined this and other questions on my blog at: http://blogs.payscale.com/salary_report_kris_cowan/2008/05/post.html

JLB1210

I think things that have been posted on social media sites should be irrelevant when hiring decisions are made. What people do in their "free time" should be divorced from who they are as professionals. Employers should not even be looking up candidates on these Web sites.

I actually went the other way and asked my boss if I could add him as a friend on Facebook (he accepted). I have nothing to hide; I am not a party person and do not do things that anyone would be ashamed of. I do not normally take strong partisan stands. So I feel that I have nothing to fear and everything to gain by building rapport with the boss.

Gary B

The reality is that Facebook is an open site. Even if you limit what people can access the slightest insight, even if misunderstood, could affect your chances of getting hired or impede your work place relationships. Many people also joing groups or add friends without knowing who they are. I have one friend who recently accepted an invitation to join a group without checking it out and when his boss looked at his profile he saw that his employee had joined a 'glamour modelling site' aka escort service site. My friend was not aware of this until he start noticing his 'new friends', all 20 something young women were only showing their breast and other body part as their profile shots. Without mentioning how embreassed his family was he was also the center of negative comments at work. He was viewed as a dangerous guy in the office. It really effected his presonal and private life.
Facebook is great a getting back in touch with old friends. And there is nothing wrong with being social. It is human nature. But please be careful in accepting invitations to groups without any background information about them. Also dont accept 'unknown' friends, who knows they maybe working for your potential employer to see what you are up too. Seriously stay safe online, dont open your home to strangers.

Barry

Public content is just that. Right or wrong, some will Google you, which is why I suggest you do the same every once in a while to see what it turns up.

And it's not just Facebook. If you respond to blogs like this using your real name, that will show up on a Google search too. So if you're commenting on some whacko political blog in support of something crazy like a porn addicts blog, you're going to show up on a Google search.

There's nothing you can do about it, so we better deal with it...

Amelia

Does anyone know when this debate was written?

John

Employers can still view your facebook even if you're not their friend and it's private, surprisingly.

Pamela Tyll

I am senior at St. Edward's University in Austin, TX. I am conducting my Capstone (senior thesis) paper on this topic. Does anyone know anything more about this topic? Specialists in this field other than Mr. Fish and Mr. Lee? I would appreciate it so much.

~ENF~

I think that even if the profile is listed as viewable to see, then it's invasion of privacy for someone you don't even know. They should make all profiles private, but that would not be favored by some people. I see that as the only downfall. But I have also heard that people/employers can get around the privacy setting. Does anyone have any info on that?

JD with a J.D. From CA

No. Absolutely not, employers should be disallowed to view use your social web-site against you. It's over intrusive. Would you allow a would be employer, come into your home, snoop around, and see what they can un-cover?

Second, a lot of times you don't know what people put on your site. Your buddy makes an off comment, someone puts a picture of you drinking, or possibly having sex with a hooker (I'm just saying. There's no reason this can't be fun, ya' know). If you're like me, you check your social site once but every 2-3 weeks. Meanwhile, you're up there looking like the biggest bozo in the world.

Ben Dover

Anyone who cares this much is wasteing their life.

usafmom

There is a person I work with that has issue about somthing she thinks I wrote on facebook. The comment, I did not write, and she and her friend are claiming it came from me. It, according to my human resources director, does not say her name in the comment, but because she thinks it is about her she had me called in the office about a comment I didn't write and doesn't mention any names. Not sure what to do except call the corporate office and talk to a friend who studies law and make sure I have rights...Prove I wrote it. And then prove I wrote it about her. Which will be tough, because I never wrote it.

Eye4eyE

I would imagine at some point in the future, some employers may not even hire an employee unless they can see some sort of online profile on Facebook or other social networking site so they can better judge the type of person they are really dealing with. Laugh, but it's only a matter of time.

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