There are bad ideas and then there are REALLY BAD ideas., which claims to be “the world’s leading people search engine” (Ever heard of ’em? I didn’t think so), is promoting use of its search engine by “hiring managers to check applicants social status, online identity, and soft references not available from paid financial and criminal background checks.” In other words, they want employers to check out applicants’ MySpace or Facebook sites before making a hiring decision.

There are a couple significant reasons why this is a REALLY BAD idea.

First, there are equal employment opportunity problems. The Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other laws protect individuals from discrimination because of age, sex, race, religion, country of origin, union involvement, disability, and a host of other reasons. Many social networking profiles, particularly those focused on friends and family connections,  would suggest whether an individual may be a member in one of these protected classes. Once an employer has that information in their possession, the burden will be on them to prove that the information didn’t influence the employment decision if a discrimination claim is made. (There’s a reason that information isn’t included on your employment application, after all.)

Secondly, how do you know where the information really came from? Just because a site claims to be your applicant, can you know for sure that it is? Anyone can create an online profile for anyone else. By grabbing photos from legitimate sites and using basic Photoshop skills, you can create images that make the person look like they were partying like it was 1999. Add some choice links to lurid websites and a few status updates that reflect political persuasion or opinions about employer-employee relationships and you’ve got a profile for an unemployable person.

Perhaps one of your open positions is for one of the 2% of jobs where the applicant’s lifestyle is relevant (Obama administration appointment, C-level leadership, or other high-profile, media-scrutinized positions) and you feel certain that in this narrow case due diligence requires that you review a candidate’s online presence. Proceed with caution and the advice of your employment law counsel. Have clear guidelines about the nature of the information you are seeking and segregate all other information from the hiring authority’s decision making process.

In some cases, we’ve conducted this kind of research on behalf of our clients. We use the social networking sites strictly as indicators of potentially relevant information and independently verify all information (good or bad) before reporting it to our client.

Social networking sites are great for identifying potential job candidates in the recruiting process. However, once an individual has expressed interest in a position, HR should be very wary of using this information.

See my other recent thoughts on social networking and HR. Next week, I am interveiwing Shama Hyder of Click to Client, an expert in social networking. We are also scheduling future podcasts with recruiters who are using social networking in identifying candidates, so stay tuned.

Mike Coffey is president of Imperative Information Group, a Fort Worth, Texas-based background investigations and business due diligence firm dedicated to clients who can’t afford a cheap background check. For more information about Imperative Information Group’s services, please contact Micah Taylor at 877-HR-FACTS (877-473-2287) or visit us online at