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Social Media and the Future of Hiring: “So, please explain this picture on Facebook…”

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Having served on the hiring committee at my law firm for many moons, and having interviewed law students for far too many years to admit to in a public forum, I was struck by this article:

While most of the focus has been on the marketing potential of data captured by Internet data companies such as Experian and Rapleaf, not many users of social networking sites have yet considered the impact of companies using it to build a snapshot of their lives for assessing credit or insurance applications or employment prospects.

Should employers be looking at Facebook pages or other social networking sites?  How much of a background check is appropriate, or worthwhile?  At what point does a brief perusal of publicly available information become an exercise in trying to live your own episode of the Rockford Files

This is, of course, less a question with a single answer for everyone than a question with different answers for different companies and even different states (and different positions — you might reasonably take greater care in hiring someone to handle large cash transactions than someone who will be raking your leaves).  But the really critical issue raised by this article and many others like it is not, really, what anyone should individually do as an employer — different companies will make decisions based on a variety of issues some of which are unique to their industry.  Instead, the issue to consider is that an entire generation (and presumably, all  generations after this) is being raised in an atmosphere where mistakes are never forgotten, and oversharing is the norm.

Teenagers, by definition, are error prone.  They make mistakes of judgment, and have since time immemorial.  Until recently, most of those mistakes were cleansed by the passage of time.  If a 19 year-old in 1956 did something foolish, in most cases they could put it behind them.  In fact, if someone did something foolish at any time prior to 1995, they could probably put it behind them, so long as they weren’t going into politics.

Today’s teenagers are not so lucky.  While teenagers today are just as oblivious as to the impact of their behavior as they always were, now, as the Violent Femmes might sing, there really is a Permanent Record.  Worse, the permanence of the Internet appears to be largely ignored by users of social media, who don’t seem to know or care that they are potentially creating an archive of ill-advised activity for future employers (or spouses!) to peruse. 

I suspect that the legal impact of this development will fade over time — when the teenagers of today are the senior managers of 2046.  They’ll be able to properly empathize with those who drunk-Tweeted 140 uncomfortable characters about their date last night.  In the meantime, and for the next several decades, we can expect a variety of troubling stories of jobs lost, or never obtained, because of poor social media hygiene.