A reader writes:
I recently was given the responsibility of finding interns for our company. In the process of reviewing applications, I Googled one of them. The first search result was her Facebook page, so I clicked on it and saw that many of her posts and pictures were set to "public." I did not see anything out of the ordinary or really anything that would prevent her from getting a job, but decided to mention it to my boss and co-worker anyway, just to see what they thought.
To my surprise, I was met by extreme resistance to what I had done. I was told that it is not OK to look someone up before an interview because what I find might "color my opinion of them" and that my personal judgments might get in the way. I was under the impression that people are responsible for curating their Web presence as they see fit, and that whatever is found through a simple search is fair game. I was also under the impression that this is pretty standard these days. Am I wrong? Is looking up a potential intern or employee prior to an interview unethical?
No, you're not wrong. Your boss and co-worker don't know how to hire. Small company, I'm guessing, and your boss doesn't have significant experience hiring? Because this is the kind of thing people say when they don't know what they're doing.
It's very normal to Google candidates. The vast majority of employers do it before hiring someone (77 percent, according to the most recent study I saw on this).
And, yeah, you might indeed find something that would "color your opinion of them." In fact, that's the point. For instance, you want to know if they have a Twitter account full of racist rants or posts trashing their employer, or a blog full of terrible writing that demonstrates low critical-thinking skills. You want to know if there's evidence that information in their résumé is false. Or, on the positive side, you'd also take note if you found a blog full of thoughtful, well-written posts, or a track record of contributing to discussions in their field, or additional information about their experience that solidifies your impression of them as a strong candidate.
Those are all legitimate things to take into consideration as you assess a candidate.
When you're hiring, you want the most information possible about the people whom you're seriously considering. It's an amateur move on your boss's part to believe that you're somehow supposed to be confined to only information the candidate herself offers up--it's a misunderstanding of what good hiring means. You don't rely solely on what a candidate chooses to tell you about herself.
Now, there are ways to misuse internet searches when hiring, of course--such as allowing yourself to be influenced by information that you're not legally allowed to take into consideration, such as that the candidate is pregnant, or what her religion is. But it's ridiculous to say that you shouldn't do any Googling because you might find those things out. You wouldn't interview all candidates behind a screen so that you couldn't see their race, and with a voice distorter so you couldn't tell if they're male or female.
Most employers Google candidates. Your boss is off base.