A tale of students, snooping recruiters and Facebook

As employers turn to the Internet for recruiting, young people are putting more of their lives online.

Darren Bernard

If you spend much time on Facebook or MySpace, I’m sure you’ve heard the warning. It’s not just friends, fellow students and family members who could be browsing your account – college recruiters and school administrators can, too. As they do so in increasing numbers, the body count of students getting in trouble at school and passed over for job opportunities is adding up.

This column is not an arm-flailing attempt to scare you from using all the neat new social networking sites that are popping up. The few surveys done on this show that nowhere near a majority of recruiters use these sites to screen candidates. There is equally little reason to believe administrators are scouring student profiles for evidence of underage drinking, drug use or whatever else. Fox 9 News may be, but probably not the college deans.

Still, the anecdotal horror stories are mounting, so don’t think it isn’t happening. University of Nebraska basketball fans had the bright idea to look up information on a competing team’s player to use to taunt him during a game. As a result of that incident and many others, college athletic coaches across the nation have begun barring players from Facebook and other networking sites. Several recruiters recently described to the New York Times how they ditched job applicants after discovering online profiles filled with vivid descriptions and photographs of violence and sexual adventures.

Recruiters’ use of Facebook and MySpace is the logical extension of a decade-old trend. Just as employers are turning to the Internet for more efficient recruiting, young people are putting more of their lives online. Sophisticated search engines like Google make private life uncomfortably public, but social networking sites are an entirely new level of disclosure – voluntary, often full self-disclosure – which means they require an entirely new level of user responsibility.

I’ve talked with students about recruiters using Facebook to screen job applicants. The reactions are surprising. “Whatever you submit to Facebook you do so willingly,” one student said. “It’s your responsibility.” A recruiter for one of the big Minneapolis-based companies told me he doesn’t use social networking sites out of privacy concerns. “I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant information,” he said. “I’m not looking to disqualify otherwise qualified applicants.”

That sentiment certainly isn’t ubiquitous among recruiters, and, at least for now, students can’t do much to fight back against nosy employers. As a rule, employment laws in the United States favor employers. Unless you can prove that an employer’s use of Facebook or MySpace has violated some specific anti-discrimination law, it’s unlikely the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the courts will give you the time of day.

A “right to privacy” claim would be difficult to justify as well. Your “right to privacy” depends on whether you exhibit a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” and I suspect you will have trouble convincing a court that your Facebook postings are meant only for a private audience. Then again, if you use strict privacy controls and an employer manages to get around them to view your profile, you might have more of a case.

There are a handful of other legal variables in play here, such as whether third parties are involved in recruiters’ investigations of candidates. Also, employers might be violating certain Web sites’ terms of service by searching out candidates’ profiles, which might be punishable under federal computer fraud laws.

To date, no lawsuit has been filed over employers’ use of social networking sites, so where the courts would come down on the issue is anybody’s guess. That means the best way to protect yourself is to use discretion in deciding what you post to your online profile. Remember that once photographs get onto the Web, they are virtually impossible to get off. Living with your decisions takes a whole new meaning in the Internet age.

I know the responsibility argument doesn’t sit well with some in the collegiate crowd. And I know there are students who think it is unethical for recruiters or administrators to use semi-private (read: public) Web sites to check up on students. I am not among that group – if someone is dumb enough to post his drunken cross-dressing adventures to his Facebook account, he deserves to be shunned by responsible employers.

But what I or other students think is totally irrelevant. Unless the courts unexpectedly step in to enforce specific privacy rights or anti-discrimination laws, it’s a safe bet that recruiters and school administrators will continue to use whatever means necessary to get the information they want.

If nothing else, you’ve been warned.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]