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Employers scour Web for clues on staffers

Employers scour Web for clues on staffers
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First Published: Sun, May 01 2011. 07 27 PM IST

Caught: Firms check everything, from racy images to racist comments.
Caught: Firms check everything, from racy images to racist comments.
Updated: Sun, May 01 2011. 07 27 PM IST
If you think the boss will never find those revealing party pictures because you used a fake name, think again.
Companies are hiring social media spies to scour social and other sites, using software that cross-checks email addresses and other electronic identification codes. They’re looking for racy images, racist remarks or other offensive behaviour of job applicants and current employees. And they’re looking for information that many folks assumed was secret because they used an alias or set up an email account they thought made them anonymous.
Caught: Firms check everything, from racy images to racist comments.
Many companies check the criminal and credit backgrounds of their applicants, so it's a logical next step to investigate someone’s online presence, says Max Drucker, CEO of Social Intelligence Corp., a Web-checking company he launched last year in Santa Barbara, California, US.
Companies are worried about negligent hiring lawsuits if they miss online clues about an applicant's proclivities, and the person commits a crime after coming on board, he says.
Some clients are also using the service to monitor their existing workforces, Drucker says. They're looking for disclosures of confidential company information by employees or disparaging comments about the company in public forums.
He declined to disclose how many companies have signed up to conduct the searches, which cost $20-50 (Rs 870-2,220) each.
Violent indicators
Drucker says it's not uncommon to find applicants posting sexually explicit material or drug solicitations—especially seeking to buy or sell the powerful painkiller OxyContin, which has become a popular street drug.
The searches also have found postings threatening violence as well as images of gun-toting applicants, he says. In one picture, a job applicant was pointing a handgun, and others in the photo were brandishing an assault weapon and a Samurai sword. They were all drinking beer.
But should employers be looking at these images? What if they reveal information about an applicant's race, religion, marital status or other details that could launch a civil rights claim if they swayed hiring decisions?
“I think it’s really important to find out as much as you can about the CEO and other critical positions,” says David Barron, an employment lawyer who represents management with Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall in Houston. But for lower-level retail or office jobs? It may not be worth the risk of facing a civil rights claim, Barron says.
“You will probably run across things you wouldn’t normally know,” he says. Or aren’t allowed to consider—like whether the applicant is pregnant. The problem is compounded if the employer just checks up on applicants of a certain race or gender.
Social media sites
Barron says he has been receiving more questions from clients about checking applicants on social media sites. Many are wary, especially if they know the US’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been paying closer attention to how companies use credit and criminal background checks. The agency has sued companies recently, contending such investigations disproportionately screen out minorities and other protected groups.
“I don’t think most employers are comfortable with it,” Barron says.
“You don't want to be the test case,” he says—forced to spend thousands of dollars to prove what you did was legal.
In a recent interview, P. David Lopez, general counsel for the EEOC in Washington, said he wasn't aware of services that allow employers to scour the Internet looking for images and comments that employees or applicants are trying to hide with false identities.
“Technology evolves so fast that it’s kind of hard to keep up,” Lopez said. “You don’t want to stifle employer innovation, but you also want to make sure they're not operating on discriminatory assumptions, either.”
©2011/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Sun, May 01 2011. 07 27 PM IST