Many of my students graduate this month and begin searching for that elusive first job. They will enter a very competitive marketplace. Every competitive advantage they have must be exploited. And any competitive disadvantages must be minimized. As we’ve said here before, it’s time to scrub Facebook and MySpace pages for anything that might be unflattering or unprofessional.
This came to mind rather strongly recently after a conversation with my student Caitlan T. Ward. Caitlan commented on one of my blog posts about legal and ethical issues in using social networking sites. She told me about a real life example of what happens when employers check social networking sites of job candidates. Her comments, and our subsequent conversation, were so insightful that I want to share them here.
Caitlan astutely points out that as Facebook gains publicity in the media and in the world of business, it creates many concerns for college students and graduate job seekers.
“I would like to share a short story of my own personal experience of the serious impact of Facebook and MySpace,” Caitlan says. “Last summer, I was hired as a receptionist for a small title company. All the employees were laid back and friendly. My boss was especially casual and welcoming, and not to mention somewhat young for his superior position. He was 33 years old and only a few years out of law school.”
Caitlan says that the first day she met the young boss he was searching around on Myspace. She says it prompted an interesting conversation about Facebook and MySpace. Then it turned weird.
“A few weeks later he was periodically asking me to search for specific people on Facebook and MySpace, individuals who were applying for employee positions at the company,” Caitlan says. “My boss would browse the candidate’s web pages, and although he didn’t make hiring decisions solely based on information he derived from Facebook and MySpace, he did form a conscious judgment of the candidates based on what he saw from pictures, wall posts, personal blogs, online groups, and the list goes on.”
At present, there isn’t much case law regarding social media. There is little guidance since many situations simply have not been tested in court. But we do know that an employer can legally decide not to hire you based on a review of the contents your Facebook or MySpace page. That is, as long as employers do not violate federal or state discrimination laws in using social networking sites in making hiring decisions. For example, an employer cannot legally screen out applicants based on race or ethnicity.
But Caitlan’s words are chilling: “the boss didn’t make hiring decisions based solely on information from Facebook and MySpace, but he did form a conscious judgment of the candidates based on what he saw.” That’s legal and highly instructive.
It is not an invasion of privacy for an employer to gain access to your profile or photos. What is posted on the Internet has a lower “expectation of privacy” than, say, a private home telephone conversation. Once posted on Facebook or MySpace or your blog, the information is available to the public. Therefore, viewing it does not constitute an invasion of privacy.
Caitlan says others began to ask her to surf sites for them on the job. “Soon enough, I actually had several employees asking me to search for their children, ” she says. “Then I realized how much trouble that could cause, so I told everyone I deleted my Facebook and MySpace and couldn’t help them.”
“It was very discomforting to know that my similar information was available, too,” Caitlan says. “People might think businesses, schools, the media, and the police won’t be able to gain access to private Facebook or MySpace pages, but all my boss needed was a young, college student receptionist who was familiar with these sites to get to the page.”
“My experience emphasizes the significant influence the Internet has on society and the importance of limiting personal information posted on the web, especially for graduating college students entering the business world,” Caitlan adds. That is wise counsel.