There was an article in the New York Times last week about a start-up company called Social Intelligence, which exists for the sole purpose of running “social media background checks” on job applicants. The company sorts through everything on the Internet about an applicant for the last seven years, eventually creating a dossier not only of honors, charity work, and other good deeds, but also of racist comments, sexually explicit material, drug references, and weapons displays.
In case you’re wondering why employers need to outsource Internet searches, one of the answers is plausible deniability. As the article points out, these searches can yield plenty of information that employers are legally prohibited from considering in making job decisions. Perhaps an applicant is a frequent poster to a forum for women undergoing fertility treatment, immigrants from the Sudan, or Jews for Jesus. Maybe the applicant belongs to a Facebook group for parents of children with autism. Or, the applicant might have a blog recording her gender transition from male to female (off-limits as a basis for employment decisions in many states). Having a go-between collect the data and hand over only what the employer is legally entitled to consider creates a legal buffer zone.
I wasn’t surprised to see this type of company profiled in the Times, nor to see some of the things applicants have been rejected for (naked pictures, racist rants, photos of the applicant posed next to marijuana plants, or searches for oxycontin on Craigslist). Here’s what surprised me: One of the people interviewed, an EEOC employee, said that 75% of recruiters reported that the companies they hired for required them to research applicants online — and 70% reported rejecting applicants because of what they found on the Internet.