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Getting to know you: Companies are using sites like MySpace to learn much more about job candidates

January 15, 2007

In today's Internet age, companies are going well beyond reading résumés and contacting references to check out job candidates. More and more would-be employers are turning to the Web to conduct background checks on prospects.

MySpace and Facebook are two hugely popular social networking sites where college and high school students often post risqué photographs and provocative content about drinking, recreational drug use, sexual exploits and other personal conduct.

But what some job seekers might mistakenly consider relatively private information is becoming a treasure trove for companies wishing to unearth nuggets of personal data no one would dare include on a résumé.

It's not uncommon for some users to brag about shoplifting or slacking off at work. Many gripe about their jobs.

Jackie Dowd, manager of employer development at Butler University's Center for Career Planning and Development, knows of employers who use the sites to screen applicants for permanent positions, as well as for internships.

"They don't hesitate sharing with students that they will eliminate a candidate for consideration if they see something that makes them question the individual's character," she said. "Our advice is for [students] not to even have an account through MySpace. It's better to avoid it altogether."

A summer survey by Connecticutbased ExecuNet, a job search and recruiting network, found 77 percent of recruiters use search engines to learn more about job candidates. Of those, 35 percent-up from 26 percent in 2005-have eliminated a prospect after digging up what's known as "digital dirt."

MySpace and Facebook attract millions of participants who communicate online by posting biographical and other information, often intended to show how funny, cool or outrageous they are.

Personal pages on MySpace are available to anyone who registers, although some of the content can be limited to those with passwords. The site tends to be popular with high school students.

Until recently, Facebook required users to have a college e-mail address to register and personal pages were restricted to friends and others on the user's campus. Today, anyone who registers can gain access.

Information posted on MySpace and Facebook often can prove invaluable, said Karl Ahlrichs, senior human resources consultant for Professional Staff Management Consulting in Carmel.

"By searching out a candidate's profile, you can see what a person might be like when their guard is down," he said. "As a human resources professional, that's more important to me than a GPA."

Legal ramifications

But are employers who nose around on the Internet exposing themselves to legal risks? Craig Borowski, an employment lawyer at Indianapolis-based law firm Baker & Daniels LLP, said, in most instances, no.

For starters, Indiana is an "employmentat-will state," meaning companies can terminate any employee not protected by a union for any reason, as long as it does not violate federal discrimination laws.

By looking at the sites, for instance, employers inadvertently might learn a candidate's age, marital status, medical history or plans to start a family. Those topics typically are off-limits in job interviews because they can be grounds for discrimination suits if people aren't hired. However, invasion-of-privacy charges won't hold water because it would be nearly impossible to prove a reasonable expectation of privacy exists on a public domain such as MySpace, Borowski said.

MySpace does, for instance, try to ban noncommercial use by members by suggesting recruiters could violate the site's rules if they gather data on a candidate and share it with others in the company. The question, Borowski said, then becomes, "Who's going to bring the claim?"

"What I tell my clients is that, if you're going to be looking at off-duty conduct, you should be able to show some negative impact that would affect their ability to perform a job," he said. "If it doesn't, you have to be very careful."

Employers need to be cautious, too, that their searches don't harm their ability to recruit and retain good employees. Too much investigating could cause morale problems and damage an employer's reputation, Borowski warned.

MySpace firing?

At least one instance in Indiana occurred last year in which an employee thinks statements posted on a MySpace profile led to his ouster.

Rich Jackson, former managing editor of The Palladium-Item in Richmond, was fired July 17. Although newspaper management declined to provide an explanation, Jackson said, he told trade magazine Editor & Publisher that he believes his MySpace profile was responsible.

His departure stems from management's decision in the fall of 2005 to create a MySpace page to promote stories appearing within the newspaper. But the following May, Jackson created his own profile page, where he began posting poetry, chapters of a novel he had written, and what he described as "humor writing." He also mentioned a song parody, "The Rectal of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

The former editor claimed officials from parent Gannett Co. who fired him mentioned the profile "had some sexual content," according to Editor & Publisher. The newspaper's publisher also told him they had conducted an investigation of his computer use and found he checked his MySpace messages.

Baker & Daniels' Borowski said clients increasingly seek his advice regarding whether they should search an employee's blog. In most instances, though, the concerns relate to a worker who may be trashing the company, he said.

"Where do you draw the line in regulating employees' off-duty conduct?" Borowski asked. "The obvious ones, like violent behavior, are easy. But what if the person is talking about partying over the weekend?"

Pointers for posters

Ryan Hupfer, a business development associate at Carmel-based MediaSauce, wrote most of the "MySpace for Dummies" book for New Jersey-based Wiley Publishing. The tutorial arrived on shelves Jan. 3.

Hupfer, a self-professed computer geek, rented a 55-foot tour bus and began traveling from New York to California the day after Christmas in 2005 to document meeting eight people he and his roommate corresponded with through MySpace. Production of the video finished late last month.

For the MySpace-addicted, Hupfer offers a few pointers to help protect their privacy. Don't post pictures of yourself on your page, he said, and limit who can view the contents to friends instead of the general public. Using an alias instead of a real name also can make it harder to locate somebody.

While the merits of networking sites can be debated, their longevity seems certain. During a recent lecture to a high school class, Hupfer asked how many students had their own page. Only three of 50 did not. But only about half implied they would allow their parents to view the content.

"If you don't want your mom to see it," Hupfer said, "who else do you not want to see it?"
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