Traditional criminal checks have protections for employees built-in to the system, courtesy of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). State laws also serve to protect the subjects of employee background checks. Some criminal records dog job candidates longer than they would like, but at least the person is notified about the problem, and there are mechanisms for correcting inaccuracies. But in the Internet era, employers are increasingly using sites such as Google and MySpace to vet potential employees. What are the implications?
It is easy to see why the Google background check is so popular. It is free, instant, and can provide an insight into someone’s character in a way that an interview never would — after all, most interviews will not include details of bar hopping and sexual escapades. Criminal records may occasionally show up online, but the data found is often going to be from social networking sites. If someone posts data on themselves, through a public profile or blog, it is fair to expect that others may be looking. The situation gets murkier when third-parties post derogatory comments. It can difficult or impossible to prosecute an anonymous poster. Many web sites have recognized that the road to popularity is best reached by encouraging angry or pornographic screeds, and the reputational damage can be very real. The Washington Post recorded a striking example of this recently, where a top law student was denied employment due to comments on a web site.
Is it legal for employers to perform internet background searches? I am not a lawyer, but the answer appears to be yes. The FCRA applies primarily to companies who provide employment screening and not to employers themselves, although employers who engage in discriminatory practices can be subject to lawsuits. Is it the right thing to do morally? Again, profiles that are self-created are a fairly easy call. For other material, the spirit of the FCRA — if not the letter — would suggest that the candidate be shown the material and be given a chance to refute it.
As a job candidate yourself, or merely as a future one, it is wise to watch what you make public about yourself. Web pages can live on forever in search engine records, and photos can be put to uses in ways you might not like. Search to find out if anything bad about you is out there, and be prepared to address it pro-actively with potential employers if it is. The odds are that they will see it either way.