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Meridith Levinson posted an editorial yesterday calling on job-seekers to stand up to employers who are doing background research on the Internet and demand respect for their privacy.
Your first thought on that is probably "Great timing! You go out and try that in this job market!" But your second thought might be "But if they put it up on the Internet, how exactly is it private?" In response to this, Levinson says:
You might contend that the information people share on the web is public, and therefore that it's fair game for employers. I argue that this information may be public by virtue of its presence on the Web, but it's still personal in nature. It's not professional information. Therefore it should have no bearing on hiring decisions.
That would be great if people could be counted on to leave their personal lives at home and act professionaly, but they can't. Having seen what someone with, shall we say, chemical issues, can do to an IT department and company, I don't think it's in the least unreasonable to attempt to determine someone's proclivities in that direction before hiring them. Similarly, someone boasting of their sexual exploits openly online presents a huge red flag for potential harassment or hostile workplace cases. Neither of these would be a problem if staff could be counted on to leave their personal lives at home, but life doesn't really work that way. In fact, this screed comes at the same time as others are calling for employers to exercise less control over behavior in the workplace… they want you to both not check on the candidates Facebook page, but let them access it freely at work after you hire them.
The idea that all the information necessary to judge a candidate is available during the job interview process (which is Levinson's answer to this issue) is naive and disingenous. The same career counselors that are telling candidates to watch what they post online are also spending hours prepping them to ace interviews, a process which consists largely of appearing to be someone you aren't, ie "the ideal candidate." The hiring process is a game, but it is one that is played by both sides, something the editorial neglects to address. If candidates could be trusted to come clean about how likely they are to show up drunk at work or to fondle a female coworker, then sure, background checks would be excessive. But I have yet to hear anyone bring that up in an interview, and though Levinson suggests that background checks are borderline discriminatory, I can't imagine what she would have to say were these questions presented directly in an interview room.
It's certainly true that this sort of screening doesn't unearth people who engage in these activities, but don't post about it. While Levinson sees this as sort of a double standard, I think that she misses at least part of the point: the fact that the candidate decided to post such a thing in itself shows something of their judgement, and that may be ultimately more important to the employer than the activity itself. In an age where millions of dollars worth of personal information is lost weekly by "careless corporations" it's hard to turn around and fault those companies for looking for staff with good discretion and judgment.
Levinson uses phrases like "civil liberties" and "legislating people's behavior" and "right to privacy" which would lead you to think this is some sinister, governmental issue, but in fact it is a corporate exercise of American freedoms and responsibilities. As long as the legal system continues to hold corporations responsible for the actions of individual employees, and as long as there is publicly available information which allows the screening of risky hires, responsible companies have little choice but to make use of it. Moreover, Levinson forgets that the job market is just that: a market, and that markets flourish in the availability of information. There may well be some employers who don't care about a candidate's proclivity to get smashed and engage in piggyback jousting on film with her top off as long as she can write good code. The more they, and the others, know about her (jousting and all), the more likely that candidate is going to end up at an organization that is ultimately a good fit.
Believe it or not, I get Levinson's point, which essentially boils down to "Judge employees by what they produce at work, not what they do afterward" and I'm entirely on board with that sentiment. But for most candidates, it's silly to pretend there is some firewall between the two, and it's just as silly to suggest that the candidate, rather than the hiring corporation, is in the best position to decide what is relevant to the position and what is not.