Employers, now more than ever, are looking online to find out who you REALLY are.
Not the “you” on the resume you spent hours writing, and not the “you” in presentations before large audiences. They want to know the “you” that talks just to close friends, and the “you” who’s doing things when you think no one is looking. That’s what they’re looking for.
And thanks to social media like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and similar websites, they’re finding the after-hours, private side of you that you probably never thought would affect your career. A survey done by the website CareerBuilder.com found that 45% of employers admitted using online social media to screen job candidates. To be sure, this tactic carries clear risks for employers, as online profiles often contain information that the law prohibits from being used in employment decisions (age, religion, sexual orientation, union activities, political affiliations, to name a few). But it’s happening. And there may be other information you post – pictures for example – that are not illegal for an employer to consider and that could predictably hurt your career.
And, in lawsuits, lawyers representing companies are now frequently asking for access to your online profiles. Here’s a sample request I received in one case recently, asking for my client’s online social media profile details. The depth of the demand is astonishing. They wanted:
“From September 1, 2008 to the present, all Electronically Stored Information (ESI) in your possession, custody or control, that relates, pertains to or references your coworkers, our company, former employees of our company, or our attorneys. This request includes, without limitation, all electronic communications and social media postings, including, emails and attachments, instant messages, text messages, blogs, tweets, wikis, forum comments, social media communications of any kind (YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the like), voicemails, videos, word processing documents, calendars, spreadsheets, Power Point and other presentations, databases, and archived data (PST files, Zip files, backups and the like). ESI that you have stored in an account with an Internet provider, website or telecommunication provider is legally within your control and must be searched and produced even though it is not in your possession or located on your personal computers…..”
Keep in mind that these kinds of requests aren’t just limited to postings by you personally. It covers anything your friends or family have posted as well, if it relates to the job or your coworkers. In one recent case involving a claim of disability discrimination, the company lawyers wanted copies of my disabled client’s profiles and posting. His friends sometimes posted friendly jabs at him relating to his medical situation, much as a family member might in good fun to keep things light. We’ll all tolerate things from family and friends that we’d never tolerate from a boss or worker. But the lawyers were trying to paint my client as someone who wasn’t offended by rude comments about his disability just because he didn’t delete the comments from friends. It was obvious that my client’s coworkers weren’t close to him on a personal level. And their handling of my client wasn’t friendly or in good faith. It was despicable. But it shows how even comments posted by friends can be used against you if you’re not careful.
You’ll also want to think about the groups you join, or the comments or other activities that you approve of by clicking features like “like” buttons, or that you forward to friends. Think about the comments you post on other peoples’ profiles, and on other websites you frequent and post comments to.
Remember, too, that adding coworkers as friends means that others in your office have access to most or all of your profile content. That might be fine. But you want to remember that what is appropriate in the workplace might be far less than what is in your profile, and that the line between job and personal life becomes very fuzzy online. You might well be someone who is very sensitive to others’ feelings, but even you may not realize the many things that would offend your coworkers. (Think about who’s asking to be given access to your profile, too, while we’re at it. In the disability discrimination case above, several of my client’s former coworkers suddenly asked to be his friend, after my client had been fired. It seemed apparent that they were doing so only so that the former employer would be able to see what my client had on his profile, and to continue monitoring it over time.)
So what do I recommend for employees, in the context of social media profiles? Think before you post. If you’re going to give access to your personal information and profiles to people you don’t truly know on a personal level, you’re not always going to know how they will react to your content. Some people lose their jobs because of what they put online; some never get hired because of it. Some suffer discipline when a coworker goes in and complains about something they’ve posted about the coworker, or about the job, or about race, religion, age or sex.
The list of the potentially offensive is endless.
Know your audience.
Know that today’s offhand comment or picture is tomorrow’s Exhibit A.
Know that, right or wrong, employers are now using what you post online to evaluate you and, often, to make decisions about you. Enjoy everything that social media has to offer, but remember that when you’re disclosing traditionally personal information with increasingly-wide audiences, the disclosures can come with a price tag.
Think before you post.