Monday, May 28, 2007

NBC Today covers employer concerns over personal blogs

It’s come up again. On Saturday, May 26, the NBC weekend Today show got into the troubling trend of employers to do “background checks” on applicants’ blogs and social networking profiles.

One report now claims that over half of all employers do this (out of what universe wasn’t said) but at least a spokesperson for indicated that some employers are wising up to the fact that informal Internet “investigations” of applicants or associates can dig up information or leave impressions that are just plain wrong, particularly when postings made by others are looked at.

One recent college graduate asked for feedback on her job search on her blog, and was surprised to find footprints that an her first-choice employer had been there. She didn’t hear from the employers again.

Again, all of this is a big unresolved social and business culture problem. You can’t say it’s really a legal issue (unless posting made by others about someone are falsely defamatory and therefore libelous).

Of course, it’s always been acceptable to consider what someone has published with a job application, but in the past “publications” were usually supervised either in academia or by the industry in which one had worked and were professional in nature. Today, the blogs and profiles (especially of younger people) tend to include a lot of “personal stuff” that sometimes doesn’t belong in the workplace.

Employers may reasonably fear that clients would be distracted if they found this “conversational” material through search engines, or they may fear liability if an applicant has a “problem” that comes out after the person goes to work and that the employer knew about before.

The trouble is, sometimes personal narratives or experiences can add substance to the presentation of an important public issue, way beyond what one finds in number-driven academic, government or corporate publications. They can be valuable two-way communications in the public debate, a point that Al Gore makes late in his book “The Assault on Reason.”

Again, it seems that the kind of work that one is going to do is an important factor. If it is someone’s job (for which he or she is well paid) to speak in public for some other party’s interest (as in public relations) then it would seem like bad faith to contradict that on a personal blog available to the public space.

Employers may also fear compromise of confidential information, but this is a more specific issue that can be well handled with personnel policies and employee training. Or they may fear that an applicant is not “serious” and wants to take a job for a short term to “expose” a problem with a certain business or industry. That sounds more like a double-edged sword. If an industry has something to “hide” or keep away from the public, why can’t it change it’s practices and be above board. Earlier postings (such as issues affecting with security companies) have already mentioned this problem. Some businesses and sometimes whole industries do deal with consumers in a deceptive way and should be exposed. Blogs could be putting more pressure on them.

Update: May 29

The Washington Post, Eli Saslow, has a story in the May 29 2007 page A1 that indicates that sometimes people suddenly get unwanted attention on the Internet, and it's obvious that this could be distracting to employers. The particular story concerns a female high school athlete whose image suddenly was circulated in "viral" fashion and who became the subject of fake profiles (that has also happened to school administrators). Females are sometimes more likely to be subjected to this. The story is called "Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record: California High Schooler, 18, Becomes a Victim Of Unwanted Attention After Photo Is Posted on a Sports Blog", and is available here (may require logon or subscription for full content).

A major earlier posting on this problem (students not hired because of comments made by others on the web) was made on March 7 2007, here.

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