Q. Do you think it's ethical for employers to do extensive Web research--including on social-media sites--to learn about prospective employees?
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A. Yes, I do. Employers have a commercial need--and a legal and ethical right--to hire the most productive, diligent and responsible individuals they can find, while honoring laws against categorical discrimination.
Pre-Internet, employers always checked an applicant's references (which were assumed to be favorable) and, when resources permitted, tried to learn more by contacting other people who had worked with the applicant and searching the meager public record. The Internet simply gives employers much greater power, reach and ease in delving into an applicant's past, as listed in public records (bankruptcy and traffic courts, for example) and the applicant's own depiction of his or her life--writings, photographs and such--on social-media sites.
Applicants should assume this will happen and have a plan to bring up and address negative information about themselves, whether or not they are asked about it. For their part, employers shouldn't assume everything on the Web is accurate, and they should give applicants the chance to address and correct errors that are found.
Not surprisingly, some employers might be concerned about litigation if they don't hire a certain applicant for a certain stated reason. So instead of giving that person the opportunity to discuss negative information, they will simply hire someone else, with no explanation to the unsuccessful candidate.
I have long warned young adults that "the Internet is forever." You should be very careful about the face you present to the world. Where possible, choose the most-restrictive privacy settings on social media. And remember, anything you ever wrote--in a blog, college newspaper or published academic paper--may someday be searchable, long after your opinions might have changed.
Likewise, sensible employers should cut young adults a little slack and not hold every youthful indiscretion against them. Most of us did some stupid things when we were young.