No division between personal, professional on the Internet

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

Consider this scenario: A manager is accepting applications for a position in his department. He interviews one particular candidate who seems well-qualified and the interview goes well. However, that evening, the manager sees that same individual at a bar going wild and partying it up. Should the manager take this behaviour into consideration? Will how the individual acts on her own time affect her job performance? At any rate, it might make the manager reconsider the applicant’s suitability for the job.

This kind of situation is becoming more common, but in a different way. With social networking sites and the Internet, it’s gotten pretty easy to search for information on anyone without leaving the comfort of the office. A scenario similar to the one above could happen, but instead with the manager checking out the applicant’s Facebook or MySpace page and finding photographs that show the behaviour described above. The manager could also find out views and opinions of the individual if she posted on online forums or blogs.

In the spring of 2009, a Harris Interactive poll of 2,667 hiring managers and HR professionals in the United States revealed 45 per cent of employers used social networking sites to research job candidates, with another 11 per cent planning to do so. And 35 per cent said they didn’t hire someone because of what they found on those sites. In a similar December 2009 survey by Microsoft, 70 per cent of HR managers and recruiting professionals said they had rejected job applicants because of information they found online. Only seven per cent of consumers said they thought their job applications were affected by online data.

It’s evident what’s online about a person is affecting how many potential employers see them. But how much weight should employers place on what they see online? Is it enough to reject a job candidate that otherwise seems fine? There could be some concerns with this.

A few photos or comments online may not represent the type of person an individual is. They could be from some time ago or an isolated incident. It’s difficult to get context from merely surfing online without discussion with the individual, particularly since the Internet is not exactly the most accurate source of information. It’s also possible a person’s behaviour away from work has no bearing on her performance. An employer could risk missing out on a great employee by not hiring someone over its perception of something it sees online.

An employer rejecting a job candidate because of something it found online would also have to be careful about what exactly the information was, or it could be faced with a discrimination complaint if it was related to any ground protected under human rights legislation.

Background checks on job applicants are normal and the availability of information on the Internet allows employers to research them like never before. But it would be wise to use careful judgment or else an employer could miss out on an opportunity, or even find itself in legal trouble.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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