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Employers may browse candidates' social media profiles

You might want to think twice about bad-mouthing your former boss on Facebook or posting racy pictures of yourself from a rollicking party. It could cost you a new job.

In a controversial twist on the exploding use of social media, employers are poring over the websites to weed out job applicants whose posts reveal that they use foul language, take drugs, associate with gangs or have other questionable characteristics.

Some employers are even demanding that job candidates disclose their social network user names and passwords.

While companies have long kept an eye on workers posting information that might hurt business, their screening of job applicants' social media pages is proving especially contentious. Employers say they do it to keep from making hires they'd later regret. But courts have yet to hash out the legal implications of the checks, and critics find the practice offensive.

Another concern is that information dredged from social media sites may be inaccurate or may confuse two people with the same name. If mistakes occur, "How would the job applicant even know?" said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

In a survey last year of companies that screen applicants' social media sites, 73 percent said they don't give the applicants a chance "to explain questionable information," according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Other surveys have found that 18 to 63 percent of employers review social media sites to assess job candidates. But many don't know that. A 2010 Microsoft study found that just 7 percent of those it surveyed in this country realized employers might look for that data.

And while employers often find positive information about job seekers on the sites, that's not always the case. Of more than 2,600 hiring managers surveyed by CareerBuilder in 2009, 35 percent had rejected candidates after finding objectionable material, including photos of them using drugs, bad-mouthing previous employers and lying about their qualifications.

Even posting information deemed to have a negative tone can turn some employers away, said Vlad Gorelik, CEO of Reppler, a Palo Alto, Calif., firm that helps social media users "manage their online image."

One firm that provides such advice — Social Intelligence — has drawn federal scrutiny. In September, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., sent Social Intelligence a letter expressing concern "that there are numerous scenarios under which a job applicant could be unfairly harmed by the information your company provides to employers." Social Intelligence insists it does nothing wrong, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which examined its practices last year, found no reason to disagree. But with other consumer reporting agencies offering similar services, "It's an area we are concerned about," said FTC attorney Katherine Armstrong.

Many employers should be skittish about social media, too — particularly if the information they find prompts them to reject a candidate, some lawyers warn. Such sites often reveal a candidate's race, gender, disability or other federally protected status, they note. So if the candidate doesn't get the job, the employer could be sued for discrimination, forcing the company to prove that revelations based on social media didn't influence its hiring decision.

On the other hand, these legal experts note, employers could be sued for not using social media to screen applicants — particularly if they hire a dangerous or otherwise unfit person whose negative qualities could have been vetted.

Social media guidelines

• Think twice about posting images or other information an employer might view as evidence that you're unfit to hire.

• Use social media privacy settings to minimize the chances of a would-be employer seeing posts you'd rather not reveal. Such privacy settings may not hide everything you post as employers may demand your social media user names and passwords.

• Only search a job applicant's social media posts after getting the applicant's consent.

• Don't use fake identities to gain access to social media sites.

• Give the applicant a chance to explain or dispute the detrimental information found about them on social media sites.

Source: Employment Screening Resources of Novato, Calif.