Ask Rex Huppke: I Just Work Here
July 4, 2011
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.
LaSorsa said he believes companies should stay away from social-media background checks, relying on more traditional approaches and on the ability of an interviewer to tell "if the person's half-baked or not."
"What is the benefit of looking at somebody's Facebook?" he said. "Are you trying to see if they're just a blabbing idiot? Do you really care on Saturday if they go out and get hammered? If they do their work on Monday, does it really matter to you? Is it worth the increased risk?"
Drucker said the solution for job seekers worried about their online activity being scrutinized is simple: "Don't post racist remarks. Don't post pictures of yourself doing drugs. Don't post pictures of yourself holding weapons or bombs. This stuff is not hard."
Q: As a Minnesota guy, I really look forward to my daily lunch of hot dish, lutefisk and deep-fried cheese curds. However, it seems several times a week someone schedules a webinar or insists a meeting be scheduled at 1 p.m. EST. You'd think our East Coast brethren would be more considerate about not scheduling everything over our lunch break. Is there some psychological advantage to being fat and happy while your audience is distracted by growling stomachs?
— Joel in St. Paul, Minn., via email
A: I imagine this is just another case of the East Coast feeling insecure because it doesn't have as many states that start with "M." But for further insight, I spoke with Susan Friedmann, author of "Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies."
"I get very frustrated because people just don't understand time zones," she said. "They think that whatever time zone they're in is the one that everybody's in. They don't know if they should be adding or subtracting an hour or two. I just don't think that people are cognizant enough about it."
She did add that the East Coast has long been viewed as the primary time zone, but that may be waning with the prevalence of webinars and teleconferenced bicoastal meetings.
"It's a big issue," she said. "All the different time zones need to be noted to make it work."
And Friedmann said it's important that you stand up for your right to peacefully consume lutefisk: "If a time doesn't work, you need to just say, 'Hey, sorry, that's my lunchtime. Can we do it later?'"
Q: Dear Rex: My colleague has ugly feet. And wears flip-flops. Can I hack her feet off with a machete?
—Seth in Montreal, via Twitter
A: Because you live in Canada, you are allowed to do that, as long as you apologize immediately post-hacking. And don't use a sharpened hockey stick. That would be too cliche.
Talk to Rex
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