SAN JOSE, Calif. -- You might want to think twice about bad-mouthing your former boss on Facebook or posting those racy pictures of yourself from last night's rollicking bachelor party. It could cost you a new job.
In a controversial twist on the exploding use of online social media, employers are poring over the websites to weed out job applicants whose posts reveal that they use foul language, take drugs, associate with gangs or have other questionable characteristics. Some employers are even demanding that job candidates disclose their social network user names and passwords.
"We have seen pictures of people driving a vehicle with a beer in their hand, and that's posted," said Max Drucker, CEO of Social Intelligence of Santa Barbara, Calif., which helps screen the sites for employers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. "We found a picture of a person wearing a T-shirt with flagrantly racist remarks."
While companies long have kept an eye on workers posting information that might hurt business, their screening of job applicants' social media pages is proving especially contentious. Employers say they do it to keep from making hires they'd later regret. But courts have yet to hash out the legal implications of the checks, and critics find the practice offensive.
"That's completely inappropriate," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "It's like saying, 'Can I read your personal diary?' I believe that chills free speech. If everyone thinks that to get a job they have to have a perfectly clean social networking site, no one will say anything to anyone."
Another concern is that information dredged from social media sites may be inaccurate or may confuse two people with the same name. If mistakes occur, "how would the job applicant even know?" said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
In a survey last year of companies that screen applicants' social media sites, 73 percent said they don't give the applicants a chance "to explain questionable information," according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Other surveys have found that anywhere from 18 percent to 63 percent of employers review social media sites to assess job candidates. But many don't know that. A 2010 Microsoft study found that just 7 percent of those it surveyed in this country realized employers might peruse that data.
And while employers often find positive information about job seekers on the sites, that's not always the case. Of more than 2,600 hiring managers surveyed by CareerBuilder in 2009, 35 percent had rejected candidates after finding objectionable material, including photos of them using drugs, bad-mouthing previous employers and lying about their qualifications.
Even posting information deemed to have a negative tone can turn off some employers, according to Vlad Gorelick, CEO of Reppler, a Palo Alto, Calif., firm that helps social media users "manage their online image." From what employers have told him, Gorelick said, it's a bad idea to constantly post "I hate this" or "this really sucks," because it suggests you might be negative at work. After all, he added, "Do you want to have somebody sitting next to you who is complaining all the time?"
It's unclear how many employers do social media checks. While Intel doesn't, according to a representative, Hewlett-Packard declined to discuss the matter, and representatives from two companies that advise employers on social media screening wouldn't identify the Silicon Valley companies they say engage in the practice.
One firm that provides such advice -- Social Intelligence -- has drawn federal scrutiny. In September, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., sent Social Intelligence a letter expressing concern "that there are numerous scenarios under which a job applicant could be unfairly harmed by the information your company provides to employers."
Social Intelligence insists it does nothing wrong and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which examined its practices last year, found no reason to disagree. But with other consumer reporting agencies offering similar services, "it's an area we are concerned about," said FTC attorney Katherine Armstrong.
Many employers should be skittish about social media, too _ particularly if the information they find prompts them to reject a candidate, some lawyers warn. Such sites often reveal a candidate's race, gender, disability or other federally protected status, they note. So if the candidate doesn't get the job, the employer could be sued for discrimination, forcing the company to prove that the social media revelations didn't influence their decision.
On the other hand, these legal experts note, employers could be sued for not using social media to screen applicants _ particularly if they hire a dangerous or otherwise unfit person, whose negative qualities could have been spotted through a social media check.
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As it is now, employers have limited legal guidelines to go on for what they can and cannot do, said Les Rosen, an attorney whose company, Employment Screening Resources of Novato, Calif., which advises hiring managers about such risks.
"We're waiting for some court cases to come up" to clarify the issue, Rosen said. "It's such a can of worms."
SOCIAL MEDIA GUIDELINES:
_Think twice about posting images or other information an employer might view as evidence that you're unfit to hire.
_Use social-media privacy settings to minimize the chances of a would-be employer seeing posts you'd rather not reveal.
_Realize that such privacy settings may not hide everything you post, since employers may demand your social-media usernames and passwords.
_Only search a job applicant's social media posts after getting the applicant's consent.
_Don't use fake identities to gain access to social media sites.
_Give the applicant a chance to explain or dispute the detrimental information found about them on social media sites.
SOURCE: Employment Screening Resources of Novato, Calif.
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