Social media background checks jumble personal with professional

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
March 8, 2011

As Facebook users can attest, friends often flood your feed with updates that really don’t belong in the loudspeaker. Imagine how many more topics would be off-limits if you needed to hand over your Facebook profile as part of your job application. Potential employers could find out about your medical history when friends send well wishes for your recovery. They could discover your ethnicity, your age, your interests – everything you legally had the right to hold back on in your application.

These scenarios are the reasons UAF frowns on Facebook and Google as resources for its background checks. Social media forces our professional and personal lives to grind against one another. Applicants can use media skills as selling points, but they could face consequences for not being Facebook-savvy.

According to UAF Career Services, “employers are telling students to be careful what they post on their social media sites, they often will do a Google search on potential employees and decide not to hire individuals based on what is posted.”

Traditional applications’ anti-discrimination safeguards crumble when research leads employers to a Facebook profile. Ethnicity and medical history can be illuminated in profile pictures and wall posts. In February, a Maryland corrections officer contacted the American Civil Liberties Union after he was required to briefly relinquish his Facebook password upon return to his workplace, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“The problem is that once a recruiter is aware that an individual is a member of a protected group, it is difficult to claim that the recruiter can un-ring the bell and forget he or she ever saw it,” wrote Les Rosen, president of the background-checking Employee Screening Resources, on the company’s website in 2009. Employers can work around this by asking for consent or by recruiting a third party to conduct the search.

Santa Barbara-based Social Intelligence Corp. works around equal opportunity concerns by amalgamating applications and filtering out anything that could be portrayed as discrimination. Their system crawls through a person’s online presence by searching for key social fingerprints – from volunteering to violence. UAF Human Resources director Kris Racina argues this isn’t necessary.

“All the relevant information can be discovered by asking the applicant directly or checking references,” Racina said, adding that a profile page might not belong to the person who is applying – it’s easy to set up a defacing page as a prank. Also, think of who else on the internet could share your name.

Student employees won’t run into this problem. UAF does not use the internet to compile background information on applicants, Racina said.

Students don’t have that assurance from other employers, even those who recruit on campus. Some employers at the March 2 Career Expo in the Wood Center said they run internet searches on potential employees.

The Alaska Air Guard may truncate the hiring process if a background check reveals someone lied on their application, Master Sgt. Scott Stewart said. Not all vices are seen as incriminating: if photos portray alcohol use, they’re only a concern if the habits continue into employment, he said.

Target was at the Career Expo offering assistant store manager positions in Anchorage and Wasilla. The company has been known to check social media sites such as LinkedIn, Target employee Jerry Weidman said. Employees are warned to watch what they post online, he said.

Being aware is about all you can do. Keep an eye on your Facebook privacy settings, and know how to use social media to your advantage. Many businesses use Facebook to connect to their customers, and proficiency in social media public relations could be a selling point in an interview, Racina said.

Career Services cites the professional social media site LinkedIn as a helpful alternative to the quandaries of Facebook. Information on LinkedIn may not be as colorfully irrelevant as Facebook, but friends and enemies can still make prank profiles, Racina said.

“We should guard our online identities as carefully as we guard our credit scores … nothing on the internet ever really goes away,” Racina said.


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