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Employers target Facebook accounts

Nicole Toczauer | Friday, September 17, 2010

Students joke about “Facebook stalking,” which involves searching through social network website Facebook to gain information on another person. But what happens when employers begin using these same techniques to find applicants online?

This presence may be protected by privacy settings used to limit access to individual accounts, but even with just the name of a person and a little information on where that person is from, virtually anyone can be found online.

Posts, photos, videos and comments posted on Facebook can cause problems for students as they begin to search for opportunities beyond the undergraduate level, associate director of the career center Kevin Monahan said.

Monahan said the context of a post is not taken into account if an employer happens to check a profile.

“This isn’t limited to Facebook. If you rant and rave, make homophobic, sexist, or racist remarks under the guise of sarcasm, we don’t have the luxury of reading body language or the circumstances surrounding the things we read or see something online,” he said.

Companies such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young — two major recruiters of Notre Dame graduates — have Facebook pages, suggesting that while they may be there for people to “like” them on Facebook, they also navigate the online forum.

Photos depicting parties, often including underage drinking, have brought about many issues.

“I haven’t had trouble with it, but my employer back home said that any pictures posted of us doing illegal activities, while wearing any part of our uniform, would subject us to termination,” freshman Nicole McMillan said.

Some students respond by putting their profiles on full lockdown, with as much privacy as possible.

A few students even change the name that appears on their profile, which senior Nick Normandin did once he began applying for jobs.

“I changed my name so it’s not recognizable. I don’t know what exactly they’re looking for, but whatever it is, I don’t want them to find it on my Facebook,” he said.

Even while posts can be monitored to some extent, once something is placed online it is difficult to minimize its impact and impossible to remove, Monahan said.

“Once it is out there, it’s like trying to put toothpaste back into a tube; it stays out,” Monahan said.

However, Monahan said companies are not maliciously tracking down every candidate online. In fact, most aren’t.

“Most employers have a policy telling their managers and human resources: do not look at these sites. There have been lawsuits about these from individuals who feel they have lost opportunities because of Facebook, Myspace or other social media sites. Those are still pending,” Monahan said.

Sophomore Jacqueline Patz, whose sister worked in human resources, understands the basics of why this rule has been set at many companies.

“Her company is specifically not allowed to go and look at people’s Facebooks. When you’re hiring, you’re not supposed to take into consideration things like race or gender, and if you look at Facebook, you can’t avoid seeing that in their pictures or on their wall,” Patz said.

When this occurs, the main question returns: are employers justified in looking at Facebook profiles or are they overstepping certain boundaries?

Two main theories have emerged on the topic.

The first opinion is based on the Internet as a public forum.

“I don’t think that employers overstep any boundaries in checking Facebook. It’s a public website and anything you post on there is something you should expect everyone to see,” McMillan said.

Others, like Patz, find there is a clear division between a person’s professional and personal life.

“I think that there’s a big difference between the two, and whenever that line starts to get blurred, that’s crossing the rights of your employees,” she said.

Monahan said both sides have convincing arguments, but ultimately the Internet is a public forum that anyone can access.

“There are valid arguments on both sides, but when you post things out there, even under the guise of a personal site, it’s been made public. If you don’t want these comments or pictures being read, you should not be putting that information out there. I guess the courts will decide what that privacy levels — or privacy expectations — should be, not just for companies, but for all individuals,” he said.

With all of this discussion on how dangerous the Internet may be, some students rush to edit their profiles their profiles when applying for jobs.

But students can take a step back and breathe again. There are ways job applicants can use the Internet to their advantage, and even combat negative social networking from their past, Monahan said.

“Developing a strong, positive online presence is key. Writing a blog offering industry advice or recommendations can help. Another way is to create a website that details some work or class experiences you’ve had,” Monahan said. “By making these active, when an individual searches your name, your more positive aspects will show up first, and that’s what you want them to see.”

As students forge their own career paths, students like Normandin have come to realize that growing up amidst a social networking boom is beginning to show its effects.

“I think part of our generation, now that we’re mature, has grown up and is now realizing the consequences,” he said.