Poster beware: More bosses watch applicants’ social spaces

The last few years have seen an increasing number of events where a person's online actions (or those of other people) impacted their offline lives, almost always in a negative way. A new report from CareerBuilder suggests this trend will continue, as an increasing number of employers are actively searching for information on job applicants through both Google and social networking web sites. Start scrubbing those profiles! HangZhou Night Net

CareerBuilder found that 22 percent of the 3,100 employers it surveyed now use services like MySpace and Facebook to research candidates, up from just 11 percent in 2006. An additional nine percent of responders said they don't conduct such research but intend to start doing so. Of those managers who did screen potential employees, just over one-third of them—34 percent—said they had found information that led them to dismiss candidates from consideration. Listed reasons include:

41 percent of candidates disclosed incidents of drinking/drug use40 percent posted provocative photos or information29 percent had poor communication skills28 percent badmouthed a previous company/employer27 percent lied about qualifications22 percent made offensive statements about gender, race, religion, race, etc. 22 percent used an unprofessional screen name21 percent were linked to criminal behavior19 percent shared confidential information from previous employers

While certain items on this list make perfect sense and would be of legitimate concern to any employer, there are others whose inclusion is highly questionable. Drinking and drug use are lumped together, but consuming alcohol is not illegal in America, and there are several levels of potential intoxication. A company might not be interested in hiring an alcoholic, but what about a candidate whose MySpace contains photos of a Friday night party? One manager might conclude such a person has a good group of friends with which they relax and blow off steam at an appropriate time, while another might arbitrarily decide that the candidate in question drinks "too much" in their own personal opinion.

What constitutes "provocative?" What defines "poor communication skills?" The latter is a topic of concern to both educators and businesses, but judging a person's written communication skills based on an informal profile may give a highly inaccurate impression of that person's skill. There's an increasing body of evidence that suggests children (and presumably adults) switch fluidly between formal and informal communicative registers depending on what's needed at the time.

Furthermore, at which point and on what grounds does a screen name move from professional to unprofessional (and why does it matter on an applicant's non-professional, personal profile page)? That's a distinction that's easy to make at the extreme ends of the spectrum, but not so clear in the middle. A female staff member might find the screen name "HotMaleSwinger" offensive, but companies are not allowed to make hiring decisions or ask questions regarding a person's sexual preference or gender. Laws like this are intended to protect various groups, including gays and lesbians, from discrimination, but how do you protect a job applicant from a MySpace-perusing employer who finds homosexuality distasteful and believes it to be morally wrong?

These issues raise major concerns for both employers and employees. Job applicants should obviously be aware that their private information isn't private and that social sites are currently fair game for employers to search. At the same time, however, it's not clear what level of online snooping is legal. Web sites like Facebook or MySpace place their data in public view, but the laws that govern what questions are and are not permissible in a job interview weren't written with the Internet in mind.

If your MySpace, Facebook, blog, or LiveJournal contains information you don't think an employer should see, it should be kept in "Friends Only" mode.

But, legalities aside, anyone with a social profile should ensure that it's either private or that it can withstand the scrutinizing glare of an employer. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

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