Case In Point

Should you check Facebook before hiring?

Saturday, January 22, 2011; 5:16 PM

THE BIG IDEA: Is it ethical to base a hiring decision on a job candidate's Facebook page?

THE SCENARIO: Miranda Shaw, a manager at a leading consulting firm, is hiring for a senior analyst position. She has narrowed the field to two candidates, Rick Parsons and Deborah Jones, and must make her recommendation to the company's human resources department immediately. Both candidates graduated from the same highly ranked business school that Shaw attended. Both boast appropriate work backgrounds and shone in their interviews.

However, Parsons is first in line for the job because of his leadership skills, reputation for tireless energy and great communication skills. Before making her final decision, Shaw decides to Google both candidates.

A Microsoft-sponsored survey from December 2009 found that 75 percent of U.S. recruiters and human resources professionals say their bosses require them to research job applicants online. Seventy percent report they have rejected candidates after such sleuthing.

Shaw's initial search revealed that Parsons was involved in nonprofit work and had won community service awards. She was impressed. But then she landed on his friend's Facebook page.

In July 2010, Facebook's founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, announced that Facebook had just enrolled its 500 millionth member. If it were a country, Facebook would rank third in population - behind China and India. Facebook's users have shared 30 billion photographs.

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds but more openly and with more people," Zuckerberg said. "And that social norm is just something that has evolved over time."

On one Facebook page, Shaw found an album of pictures showing Parsons drinking, smoking cigarettes and - in his words - "smokin' blunts" with college fraternity brothers. The page belonged to Parsons's friend, who had not enabled his privacy settings.

When Shaw Googled the other finalist, Jones, she found only work-related sites that listed Jones as an effective project manager.

Parsons's online photos caused Shaw to rethink her choice and to grapple with the slippery boundaries between public and private life.

THE RESOLUTION: Shaw concluded that Parsons would not fit in with the company's professional work environment and her team. She could not waste time or money on hiring the wrong person. Yet she wondered whether she arrived at her decision fairly. After all, Parsons had not offered the information willingly, and he had set the appropriate privacy settings on his own Facebook page. Also, Shaw had not disclosed that she would conduct a background check online.

THE LESSON: Many people do not realize the extent to which their friends and associates could harm their online reputations. For example, friends who post and tag photos with their name and online identity on Facebook and elsewhere may have much more open privacy settings. Whatever is publicly accessible becomes public information, no matter who uploads it. It is more efficient for HR professionals to conduct online searches than to conduct reference checks, so this is a growing dilemma for companies.

Before posting information and photographs on Facebook, remember that in the virtual world, our houses are made of glass. Every piece of data is permanent and stored in a digital archive. More than half of employers cite provocative photographs as the biggest factor in the decision not to hire.

- Bidhan "Bobby" Parmar

Parmar is a professor at the Darden School of Business.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company