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Public Information, Public Examination  
8/9/2007 3:59:25 AM

By Peter Weddle -- It was hard to miss Lindsay Lohan’s very public and sad self-destruction last week. More excessive drinking and bizarre behavior, all captured on the evening news for any and everyone to see. What does that have to do with looking for a job? Early reports are that Lindsay’s actions are likely to put a crimp in her film career and may even end it forever. It costs tens of millions of dollars to make a commercial film, and there’s not a producer on earth who would risk such an investment on an out-of-control employee.

And sadly, that reality holds an important lesson for many of us, but especially for those who are just starting out on their careers. The pictures and commentary posted on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook are just as visible and just as open to the public as Lindsay’s wild SUV ride last week. Those who have portrayed themselves as prone to excessive and/or bizarre behavior, complete with graphic photos and obscene commentary, are offering the same kind of evidence that they too may be out-of-control, even dangerous employees. And, they should expect the same reaction from employers. They are likely to see their careers evaporate as employers see them as too risky to hire.

But wait a minute, those descriptions of your “wild thing” persona are posted on your own, private page online, so how can employers use that information against you? There are several appropriate answers to that question:

  • First, information posted on social networking sites is, by definition, in the public domain. It’s available to anyone in society who has Internet access, and that’s virtually every employer, public and private, small as well as large. In other words, this information is not like your credit report, civil court record and employment references. Those data are private and not available to the general public, so an employer must get your permission, in writing, to access them. What you post on a social networking site, on the other hand, is a portrait of you that is just as public as the news reports about Lindsay’s partying.

  • Second, recruiters have a fiduciary responsibility to check all available data about a person who is being considered for employment. The dictionary defines a fiduciary as “A person to whom power or property is entrusted for the benefit of another.” In this case, an employer has entrusted the recruiter with the responsibility of ensuring that any person who is hired by the organization is who they say they are and will not either be a danger to themselves or others or impede the good order and performance of the organization. Therefore, if a recruiter fails to check information you have posted about yourself in the public domain, they are failing to do their job, and that means they’re putting their own career at risk.

  • Third, in today’s litigious world, employers expose themselves to civil and even criminal penalties if they fail to evaluate a person fully before hiring them. We’ve all seen the news reports about employees who rampage through offices firing weapons and killing coworkers and others who harm innocent bystanders while driving under the influence on a business trip. The victims of such tragedies have every right to ask if the employer could have prevented the situation by doing a better job of checking the information that’s available about a prospective hire. And when the employer fails to do so, the fines are steep and the damage done to its reputation is long-lasting. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that employers today are leaving no rock unturned—including those on the information superhighway—when they assess employment candidates.

    So, how do you evaluate the pictures and information you’ve posted about yourself online? Simple. Put yourself in the shoes of an employer. That organization must have a license to operate in the city or state where it’s located, and it must conduct its business according to established laws, regulations and social norms. Given those responsibilities, ask yourself if it’s likely the organization would see you as a valuable prospective employee or a potential risk, based on what they can see on your MySpace or Facebook profile. If it’s the former, leave what you have up as it is likely to help round out the employer’s assessment of you as an employment candidate. If, on the other hand, it’s the latter—if your public, online profile paints you as a Lindsay Lohan without the paparazzi—change your profile immediately. (You might also want to evaluate the costs and benefits of the behavior, itself.)

    Adjusting your online profile isn’t enough, however. Whether it’s fair or not, there are lingering consequences to what you post online. Much of the information that appears in public sites is copied by one or more other sites using software agents over which you have no control and, often, about which you have no knowledge. For example, the Wayback Machine at Archive.org has copies of Web pages as far back as 1996. So, the embarrassing pictures or unfortunate remarks you posted on a social networking site two years ago may still be out there on the Web a decade from now, even if you removed them from the site where you originally posted them.

    What should you do? Here are my suggestions:

  • Strut the good stuff. Replace the less than flattering information you’ve taken down from your social networking site with material that will highlight your best attributes. Will that diminish your social standing? It shouldn’t; even the party animals are likely to be impressed, and as long as the new information is true, it may also counteract anything else a prospective employer might find online.

  • Hire a helper. Sites such as Naymz.com and ReputationDefender.com enable you to monitor any information about you that appears online and either delete it or post your own more accurate or alternative version for employers to consider. These services are by no means foolproof, but they are increasingly used by recruiters who want to ensure that they are getting the whole story when they look for information about candidates on the Web.

  • Be ready to discuss it. Although there is no guarantee that a recruiter will discuss the personal information they find online with you, it’s important to be ready to do so, just in case. If they uncover embarrassing posts that you have since removed and tried to rectify with the steps above, you’ll have a good story to tell: you’re a proactive person who learns from their experiences. And, that may be just the kind of person they would like to hire.
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