Even if your facebook page is all about home improvement, you could be royally screwed by the intertubes…
As part of a recent discussion on what to do about boobs, one commenter (on some site, somewhere) made note of a female scientist who eliminated possible post doc supervisors based on whether or not the prospective employer stared at her boobs as she presented her poster at a conference.1 Interesting idea. But what about the other way around? How do potential employees check out the individuals on their short list? We all know this happens. People google each other all the time.

A recent study at the social networking site Career Builder Dot Com
indicates that one in five prospective employers use social networking sites to check out prospective employees. This is an increase of 11% from a similar survey done last year.2

Was this good or bad for the employees? Likely, that question can be addressed at several levels.

For instance, one person may have an increased chance of being hired because of some judgment made by an employer, whereby the same judgment reduces another person’s chances. “So what?” you may say … “that’s how it works.” Well, maybe. But if the information being obtained is a violation of someone’s privacy, or is otherwise inappropriate … say, boob size, to keep with the theme du week … then ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for potential employees has to be reinterpreted in the broader context of ethics and rights.

i-c64888d667c4a82f1766b209f2ae11fd-doomed_on_the_job_market_LOL.jpegIt turns out that 34% of those employers who check people out on line report that they removed candidates from consideration based on the information they found. The most common reasons for this were evidence of drinking or drug use, or “provocative or inappropriate photographs or information.” Less common was evidence for poor communication skills or discriminatory remarks related to race, gender, religion, etc.

Most of these judgments are probably inappropriate for a number of reasons. For example, if I say “I think religion sucks” would that disqualify me from a job in a bank? If it does, then I, not some religious person, am the one being discriminated against. You see, the problem here is that judgments of this type being made outside the normal HR context are not likely to be done correctly. What qualifies some dude with a mouse and a computer and access to the internet to act in a way that keeps an even playing field among the candidates, or to make a proper judgment that is not in itself discriminatory or unfair?

Among the reasons for disqualification we also find evidence of unprofessional behavior (including having an unprofessional screen name) or evidence of release of confidential information or, in some cases, badmouthing a former boss.

A lower percentage of those responding to the poll (24%) indicated that information from social networking sites had a positive influence in some cases. The most common positive effects were support for the stated qualifications (as in documentation), communication skills, and “good fit for the company’s culture.”

i-e969788a3930a2f5352245045bc0989a-staring_at_boobs_LOL.jpegWhat? Good fit for the company’s culture. Say what? Good fit for the company’s culture.

Jesus Tits, Margaret, WTF does that mean? White? Straight? Gay? Too much/not enough face hardware? Wow.

I think it would be a mistake to assume that these two outcomes … getting bumped off a short list vs. getting brownie points … correspond to potentially inappropriate vs. appropriate treatment of candidates. If Mighty White Mary gets the job because in her facebook photo she is visibly white, Afro-Am Joan’s blackness may not have hurt her directly (Joan does not have a social networking site in my made up example) but she has still been discriminated against.

Personally, I think this is just how it is. Our presence on the internet is now a reality for many people. What is needed to keep this from going (continuing to go?) terribly wrong is explicit recognition of the fact that those reviewing job applications are doing this, and an attendant HR policy. Such a policy may be “don’t do this,” or it might involve training so that applicaiton reviewers understand what they are looking at.

Judgment. It is all around us.

1. This is an interesting thing to ponder. In a world where getting a post doc is difficult, why is one culling out jobs this way? Well, even so, one probably does not want to work for an ass. So, it makes sense. Yet, is this one characteristic accurately measured in this context? What did this grad student wear? And so on. Pragmatically … I’m thinking of two women I know quite well who are in the searching for post doc phase. If one of them said this to me, I’d think, “Yea, good idea.” If the other one said this to me, I’d think, “Oh, and what other evil plans did you carry out that day.” Judging, testing, challenging …. these are useful tools but they are sharp edged tools. I do not automatically assume that everyone so armed is trustworthy. is this important? No, it is a footnote.

2 A quick review of the reported methodology reveals that this is probably a reasonable poll.


  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    September 12, 2008

    And such a policy should be part of and reference an organization’s larger diversity policy, the one that says, essentially, “Hanging out with people just like us is awfully comfortable, but doing so means we can only have an impact on and serve people just like us. As an organization, we want to do more than that. To that end, we embrace our differences and pledge to work through discomfort.”

  2. #2 Joel
    September 12, 2008

    There once was a saying, “What you do on your own time is your business.” That’s no more. Employers beleive it is their right to ask prospective employees to submit urine sample, submit to lie detector tests, background investigations, and now they scour the Internet looking for clues as to who you really are.

    The problem is employers not respecting an employees personal life. It is really very easy for people to separate their personal life from their professional life. As a matter of fact, from a mental health point of view, it’s probably better for everyone involved.

    A side note: I was trying to figure out a way to work in a “you people” for Stephanie’s sake, but alas, my lack of imagination wouldn’t allow me.

  3. #3 Lummox
    September 12, 2008

    I finally Googled my own name.

    Full name got a null result.

    First and last got a few hits, covering two centuries.

    Middle and last got fun results, including that my name is the name of a band with several albums out.

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    September 12, 2008

    My full name gets hits for two people, which is why I’m fairly circumspect as to where I put out my last name for Google to find.

    Joel, no worries, although I really think it has more to do with the subject than any lack of imagination. I apreciate the effort. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. #5 Armchair Dissident
    September 12, 2008

    Heh. According to Google, I’m 24 yr old marine engineer who enjoys fishing and playing football. Oh, and I apparently also have a full head of hair.

    Suddenly I feel so much younger, and so much less bald. *That’s* the kind of image I want when applying for jobs as a marine engineer! As a programmer? Not so much…

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    September 12, 2008

    You know, this all gives me an idea. A service that for a mere fifty bucks a year or so generates an ongoing confusing (but generally complimentary) internet presence.

  7. #7 Becca
    September 12, 2008

    Points for the title of this post.
    On your footnote, keep in mind that the difficulty involved in getting a post-doc is field dependent. Personally, I think life is way too short for molecular biologists to work for Breast Ogglers.
    At the same time, if it were the department head who was Oggling during a faculty interview, tougher caller. Life is too short to be a post-doc forever, too.

  8. #8 Joel
    September 12, 2008

    That’s actually a pretty good idea Greg. If you could clean the less than flattering content as a part of the service, I’d say you have a winner.

  9. #9 Mimi
    September 12, 2008

    WOW! I must be boring. My blog shows up… and a quote from my university’s newspaper. Not too bad. I would totally hire me.

    Seriously though… isn’t there a privacy act or something? I mean enough is enough. I don’t want everyone to know what I do all the time! It’s absurd.

  10. #10 Analiese
    September 12, 2008

    Hmmmm. Does this mean that I should be articulating, in a cover letter footnote, say, that I am NOT the so-called “Lone Star Analiese” for whom name badges get no place for pinning?

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    September 12, 2008

    Ana: I do remember wanting to contact you once … way way back when … and I could not find your email. That is when I googled you and found out that you were a movie actress, porn star, a fashion model, and a very serious political activist.

    Well, two or three out of four is pretty good.

  12. #12 Ben Zvan
    September 12, 2008

    I’ve been fairly careful about what I post online, just in case of something like this. If you google me, you get me for the first 100 pages.

    On the other hand, I think XKCD says it well.

  13. #13 Toaster
    September 12, 2008


    I get 19 pages of results from my name. Almost all of them having to do with the cartoons I drew for my college newspaper and the accompanying crap-storms they stirred up on peoples’ blogs and stuff. I somehow doubt that an employer would take the time to dig through all ~200 results and view each and every cartoon.

  14. #14 Andrew
    September 12, 2008

    Toaster: Just the fact that you are a cartoonist means that you are totally screwed anyway.

  15. #15 Coturnix
    September 12, 2008

    Google me! Tons and tons of good stuff about me. And as the time goes by, I am removing the Danish soccer player lower and lower on the search page.

  16. #16 zy
    September 12, 2008

    Wow, I hope “Mimi” is joking, or do people really not get that when they put information about themselves on the World Wide Web (y’know, as in all over the world?), it is indeed there for everyone to see. Even a privacy act won’t protect such people from themselves. Maybe schools need a “Driver’s Ed” for the internet. To be on the safe side, we could also have the Myspace pages of minors be sealed when they turn 18 ๐Ÿ˜‰

  17. #17 Glendon Mellow
    September 12, 2008

    With a name like mine, it would have had to have been all-pseudonyms all the time to hide my identity, and that doesn’t help when trying to gain notoriety as an illustrator.

    I simply make sure not to ever mention my day job on my blog, or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. I leave that work at work, and cavort with my artsy-self all over the place, fulfilling an exciting part of my intellect engaging with people like those on this thread.

    So, thanks.

  18. #18 Ace of Sevens
    September 13, 2008

    Here’s my take: if we all do it, they can’t punish all of us. Seriously, this is ludicrous. It’s bad enough I spend so much time at work. It isn’t reasonable to expect me to spend what little remains of my life behaving as if I’m at work or to keep it a big secret.

  19. #19 Laurent
    September 13, 2008

    Gosh! My family name is the same as one of the first internet anonymizer (here), so any potential employer without any internet culture will see my name associated with all the bad habits of people in need for anonymity: prostitution, drugs and a lot of other borderline activities…

    Should I start adding a note on my resume?

  20. #20 Rob
    September 13, 2008

    Greg, I actually remember hearing about a company on MPR a few years ago that does just that- they go thru your ‘google’ hits and figure out ways to clean them up as need be. I tried to find the name of the company on google. Best I could come up with is ‘removeyourname.com’ which will do this, but it’s fairly expensive (like $1000). Which might be hard for someone who is actually looking for a job

  21. #21 greg laden
    September 13, 2008

    There is a company that might be called “Reputation Management Inc” or something like that. This came to my attention when a fellow blogger in Minnesota was approached by them to remove things he had said about our state’s former chief of the Department of Education. She had hired the firm to clean up her internet presence in relation to a job running Florida’s ed department. She had been driven from Minnesota, into the swamps, by teachers, scientists, activists, and bloggers.

    My company will not remove your bad stuff. Just add fake good stuff to the point that no one can find out the truth about you. I call it “iSmoke_n_mirrors.inc”

    (or is that too much)

  22. #22 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    September 13, 2008

    When I google my full name I find out that I am a top-notch financial advisor in Wisconsin. That could be really helpful someday. I also find that my real middle name is “Hussein.” Not so good.

    In all reality, if I ever want to run for church board or get a job with an oil company I am pretty much hosed. Other than that I am okay.