I Just Work Here

One person's meeting is another's lunchtime

Don't forget about those time zones when planning your meetings. Also: Avoid Facebook searches, or leave it to the pros.

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Meeting time

Why do people on the East Coast always seem to forget that the rest of the country isn't on EST? (Michael Tercha/Tribune file photo / September 22, 2010)

I would like to preface this week's column with a few unrelated statements, the significance of which will become clear later:

•Lutefisk is a traditional Scandinavian dish made of dried cod that is soaked in lye and then boiled.

•I think all of you have nice-looking feet.

•That photo of me from spring break 1991, the one with the "mankini," the case of beer and what appears to be a catapult? Just disregard that.

On to your questions:

Q: What is your position on companies checking out prospective employees' Facebook or other social media pages before hiring? Should they be doing this?

— Jenn in Reno, Nev., via email

A: In the present economy, a job is a gift, and that makes any company that's hiring look like Santa Claus. Would you question whether Santa has a right to know if you've been naughty or nice? No, you wouldn't because you don't talk back to Santa. Duh.

(I am nothing if not terrible at parables.)

My gut reaction to your question, Jenn: Companies would be foolish to not perform at least a cursory check of a job candidate's online activity. Then I made some calls on this and found that my gut reaction is almost as bad as my parables.

It turns out that companies that screen Facebook and Twitter pages of potential employees may be opening themselves up to a wide array of discrimination lawsuits.

"Let's say you apply for a job and on your Facebook site you openly say you're gay," said Peter LaSorsa, a Chicago attorney who concentrates on employment law. "The company goes on your Facebook site and sees you smooching a guy, and you end up not getting hired. Maybe you don't get hired for some other reason, but the company has now set themselves up for a charge of discrimination."

Despite such risks, companies routinely are scouring the online profiles of potential employees.

Max Drucker is CEO and president of the California-based Social Intelligence Corp., which contracts with companies to run social-media background checks on job candidates.

"Some 80 percent of companies, depending on the study you look at, are doing some form of an Internet screening, some form of Google search before they hire candidates," Drucker said. "But in doing so, they're exposing themselves to information that's not necessarily relevant to the job. Those areas are things an employer can very easily encounter, so they give themselves the opportunity to discriminate."

An employer could learn that a woman being considered for a job is pregnant. Or that a person has a disability, or a particular political leaning.

"I don't think it's fair for employers to just Google applicants and make decisions based on that," Drucker said. "I think it's a violation of privacy, and I think there's no way a company can do it with any consistency that makes it fair."

Social Intelligence scans social media for specific types of activity, including racist comments, illicit photos, drug use and the display of weapons, including bombs. They issue reports that detail only the categories the employer selects, giving the company legal cover from discrimination claims.

The Federal Trade Commission recently approved what Social Intelligence does, saying that the company operates within the guidelines of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

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