Ask Human Resources: WHEN can you Google search a job applicant? That is the question.

By Jodi Schafer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

QUESTION:

 

I like to ‘Google’ job applicants before I bring them in for an interview so that I can learn more about them.  Most candidates now have a Facebook page and a Twitter and/or Instagram account.  Given the current state of our society, I want to make sure I’m not bringing in someone with extreme/highly offensive views, pictures of inappropriate behavior or someone who posts negative comments about past employers.  Since this information is public, I thought it was okay for me to do this, but I’ve recently been questioned on it by another staff member and now I’m not so sure.  Can I continue to ‘Google’ applicants before deciding if I want to interview them?

 

ANSWER:

 

The real question is not ‘can you?’, but instead, ‘WHEN can you?’  Running a quick Google search on a job applicant can be considered a form of a background check.  You are pulling public information related to their character and using social media sites, newspaper articles, etc. to inform your opinion about them.  However, in doing so, you may also learn about their religious beliefs, their race or ethnic background, their age, their marital or familial status, etc.  Making a hiring decision based on these protected classifications is considered discriminatory and is illegal.  So, you need to be very careful about WHEN you run an internet search like this.

The first question you are trying to answer when considering a candidate for a job opening is, ‘Are they qualified to do the job?’.  Past work experience and documented skills on a resume can give you some indication of fit, but we both know that personality, communication style, expectations around hours/pay/benefits, etc. also play into whether or not someone will be the right hire for your practice.  Many times, these areas are fleshed out in an interview.  That interview may be over the phone or face-to-face, but the notes from that interaction provide rational for whether or not someone is still considered a qualified applicant.  Once you can defend a decision of qualified vs. unqualified, it becomes less risky to run additional background/character checks where you could also learn about a person’s protected classification(s).  So, the short answer to your question is ‘Yes’.  You can ‘Google’ an applicant but should do so AFTER you have conducted a screening interview to determine whether or not they are qualified for the job.

Prior to running any sort of character, reference or criminal check, it is important to obtain a signed release from the applicant.  This provides another layer of protection for you and informs the applicant that you will be digging into their background further, which may prompt the applicant to share information that had not previously been asked about but will most certainly come to light.  The authorization to perform this search should be a standalone document if you are relying on a third party to do this on your behalf.  That document needs to have language that complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  If you are running the search yourself, especially a Google search, then you can include authorization for this on your employment application, which the applicant completes and signs at the time of their first face-to-face interview. 

Sample employment application language may read,

“I authorize PRACTICE NAME to investigate my employment history and all statements contained in this application, including records of any former employers and other references or sources concerning me. I authorize all references and sources to provide this information to PRACTICE NAME and release such references and sources from liability for doing so. I waive my right to any written notice of the release of such records that may be required by state or federal law.  I understand that due to the nature of the jobs at PRACTICE NAME, an investigative consumer report may be made whereby information is obtained through interviews with various third parties.  These inquires may include information as to criminal, credit, driving record, character, general reputation, personal characteristics and mode of living, whichever may be applicable.  I understand I have the right to make a written request to PRACTICE NAME, within a reasonable period of time for additional information concerning the nature and scope of any investigation conducted.”