Thursday, April 14, 2011

Google Before You Hire?

I recently finished teaching Employment Law to a group of students at Bethel University.  The class was comprised of students who are going back to school to finish their four-year degrees, with most students majoring in Human Resource Management.   Each class period involved a lot of discussion, with students contributing stories from their current or former employment experiences. 
During our discussion on background checks, one student shared a story about what her company discovered when it did a quick Google search before offering a candidate a position.  The company was hiring a high level executive who would have a high profile within the company’s business community.  After completing the interview process, the company identified one front-runner.  Almost as an afterthought, before offering the candidate the position, the CEO decided that he ought to do a quick Google search on this individual since he would be working so closely with her if she was hired.  Much to his surprise, he discovered that the candidate was the author of a blog that detailed her sexual encounters and contained pornographic photos of herself.  As you might have guessed, the company decided not to offer the candidate the position.
For the most part, I think Googling a prospective employee is a good idea.  As my previous posts have discussed, there is some risk that you might inadvertently access protected class information, so be mindful of that.  Because information you obtain through a Google search isn’t password protected, an individual would be very hard pressed to argue that the information was private.  So long as you aren’t acting on protected class information, employers are generally free to consider the information they obtain when making hiring decisions. 
In the scenario discussed above, so long as the company’s decision was not based on the candidate’s gender or sexual orientation, its decision was lawful.   In terms of what to say to the candidate, I’d generally say very little; I’d recommend using the same type of communication technique that you do in other instances when the company has made the decision not to extend an offer.  If the company obtained this information through a third party that it hired to do a background check, you’ll need to comply with the notice provisions under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. 
One last thought: although information obtained through Google searches might be entertaining, in cases where the Google search results in an individual not receiving an offer of employment, I’d recommend that the company limit the number of company employees who learn about the search results to just those with a legitimate need to know.  The fewer the better.

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