Special to Globe and Mail Update

January 25, 2008 at 11:25 AM EST

When a 20-year-old university student recently Googled himself, he discovered the top result was a 2006 news story that listed him as one of several people arrested on drug-related charges.

The student, who asked that he not be named, recently began applying for work in his profession, which is one that’s prone to extensive background checks. He fears prospective employers might write him off based on what they find out about him online.

“It’s the only real testament to my character that my potential employer would find online,” said the student, who adds that the person named in the story is him, but that the charges were dropped and he has no criminal record. “Likely, I would not even receive a follow-up phone call to allow me to explain the circumstances under which this incident occurred.”

He’s not alone in his concern.

Employers are increasingly turning to online searches or social networking sites to discover information about potential employees. According to research carried out by ExecuNet, a Norwalk, Conn.-based human resources agency, 77 per cent of executive recruiters use search engines to help screen candidates. Meanwhile, employment website CareerBuilder reports that, in a survey of more than a thousand hiring managers, one in four stated they use search engines to help filter applicants.

“I’ve never done my job without Google,” said Cheron Martin, lead technical recruiter at Shore Consulting Group, a Toronto staffing and consulting firm.

However, she pointed out that she’s not conducting searches with an aim to dig up dirt on the applicant, but rather to learn more about their pertinent experience.

“Once I was looking for someone to work as a programmer with the Department of National Defence,” she explained by way of example, “and through online research I discovered that the applicant had previously been with a company that had worked on military applications. It was highly relevant to the position he was applying for, and that information wasn’t on his resume.”

But even if an employer is simply looking to learn more about an applicant’s experience, they sometimes stumble across personal information that can affect how they view the candidate.

One Toronto-based hirer, who asked not to be named, said that a search of a promising candidate’s name turned up a dating advertisement posted by the applicant that contained “sex-related information that could be seen as bizarre.” When she revealed what she had found to a senior executive in her office, he told her that the applicant “wouldn’t be a good fit for their corporate culture.” As a result, the company discarded the candidate’s application.

That screening ability opens a can of worms for human resource professionals.

Hirers can discover information about employees online that, legally, they aren’t allowed to ask about in interviews, such as religious affiliation, marital status and race, says Claude Balthazard of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario (HRPAO).

“If you aren’t allowed to ask about a topic in an interview, you aren’t allowed to use that information if you discover it online,” said Mr. Balthazard. Still, he acknowledged that screening based on inequitable prejudices probably happens, and that most candidates who fall victim to this practice will never be the wiser.

However, there are ways job seekers can manage information about themselves that appears online.

Andy Beal is an Internet marketing consultant with Raleigh, N.C.-based Marketing Pilgrim and co-author of Radically Transparent, a book about managing personal and professional identities online. He works with clients to improve the results returned when their names are searched using Google.

“If a client comes to me with something negative in their search results and wants it pushed out [of the first page of links returned by Google], we have to find ten other pieces of information about them that are positive and get those things to appear before the negative,” he said. “The problem is that scandal is popular. People like to talk about it, and they like to link to negative stories. Google’s algorithm looks at all of those links and thinks that [the page to which these links lead] must be highly relevant to the search query. We have to convince Google that there are other pages with information that is just as relevant.”

It can be an expensive process. Mr. Beal said his clients spend between $3,000 and $10,000 to clean up their search results, and, due to the chaotic nature of the Internet, he can offer no guarantees that, at the end of the day, searching his client’s name will result in nothing but squeaky clean results.

That’s why he recommends that people begin managing their Internet identities before any undesirable information appears online by registering a domain containing a person’s name, or creating personal and professional pages on networking sites like MySpace and Linked In.

“Build up credibility in the eyes of Google,” said Mr. Beal. “You’re being searched all the time, whether you know it or not.”

Some Canadians may already be in the early stages of learning about and managing their online identities. According to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted last fall on behalf of MSN Canada, 76 per cent of Canadians who use the Internet are conscious of the impact that their online activities could have on their image, and 59 per cent have conducted searches of their own names to see what the World Wide Web has to say about them.

As for the student whose name surfaced in a story about a drug bust, he may have solved his problem on his own. He emailed the publication that had originally posted the news story in which he was named, explained his situation, and asked that his name be removed from the article. He received a prompt response stating that his request would be honoured (though, at the time of this writing, the story containing his name was still posted).

Despite his experience of having a negative result associated with his name in online searches, the student doesn’t think it’s invasive for employers to conduct online research into prospective employees. He simply advises they use prudence.

“Discretion needs to be exercised,” he said. “The employer should speak with the person about what is found in online searches before discarding their application.”

The HRPAO’s Mr. Balthazard said this would be an example of best practices in the human resources profession, and he hopes that most hirers take this step. However, just how often employers actually call applicants to give them a chance to explain unflattering information found online is unknown.


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