Do you have a blog, Facebook page, or other online presence? Most people use social media to some extent, whether to post pictures, air opinions, stay in touch with family and friends, or get involved in communities of people with similar interests. Of course, some people also use social media to air offensive views, post pictures of themselves drunk or naked (or both), or show off their extensive weapons collections.
The opportunities the Internet offers for self-expression can become a problem once you embark on a job search. The news is full of reports of employers turning down applicants based on online posts; some employers even ask applicants to supply their Facebook or other online passwords, to allow access to information that they’ve tried to keep private.
According to surveys, about three-quarters of recruiters check out applicants on the Internet when hiring, and almost half of all employers do the same. Employers report rejecting job applicants when they find references to drug use, heavy drinking, sexually offensive materials, violent imagery, and so on.
In recent months, some employers have started asking applicants to provide their passwords and log-in information for social media sites as part of the interview process. Even if an employee has used a site’s privacy settings to protect certain information from public view, an employer with access to an employee’s password can bypass these protections and see material the employee intended to make available only to chosen viewers.
Employers who check applicants out online run a number of legal risks. First off, an employer who looks at an applicant’s Facebook page or other social media posts could well learn information that it isn’t entitled to have – or to consider during the hiring process. This can lead to discrimination claims. For example, your posts or page might reveal your ethnicity, disclose that you are pregnant, or espouse your political or religious views. This type of information is off limits in the hiring process, and an employer who discovers it online and uses it as a basis for hiring decisions could face a discrimination lawsuit.
Applicants are protected by privacy laws as well. If you have publicly posted information about yourself without bothering to restrict who can view it, you will have a difficult time arguing that it was private. An employer is free to view this information (although it may not be able to use it in the hiring process, as explained above).
If, however, you take steps to limit who can see your posts, the privacy equation shifts. A couple of courts have found against employers that have accessed private websites or pages by misappropriating employee names and passwords; in both cases, employees had set up a restricted online space to vent about the company.
In response to publicity about employers pressuring job applicants to give up their Facebook passwords, a number of states are considering legislation to ban this practice. Maryland became the first to pass a law prohibiting employers from requesting or requiring passwords to social media sites; a handful of other states have followed suit. Facebook has weighed in to make soliciting passwords a violation of the site's code of conduct. And, the federal government is currently investigating whether practices like these violate federal discrimination and privacy laws.
If you are about to embark on a job search, consider whether you might need to clean up your online act. Of course, with cached sites and historical searches, you really can’t entirely undo your past posts. But take a close look at your publicly accessible information and make sure it’s ready for prime time.
Also, mind those privacy settings. If you have information or material you want to leave up but don’t want employers to see, at least put it behind a privacy wall. But you should be aware that employers may still be able to request your password, unless your state has prohibited this practice. You should also untag yourself in any photos that you don’t want potential employers to stumble across.
If you’ve left an unfortunate digital trail, be ready with an explanation. Even if you are able to take down your original indiscrete post, it may have been reproduced or quoted elsewhere, others may have commented on it, or it may simply live on forever in the digital wayback machine. In this situation, the best you can do is try to minimize the chances an employer will find it and have an explanation (of your youthful indiscretions and your changed ways, for example) queued up if you need it.