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Meet the HR Investigators Who Can Legally Check Out Your Last Seven Years on Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and the Web

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Think you might apply for a job sometime in the future? Unless you're tenured, unemployable or an established business owner, the answer is probably yes. So you'll definitely want to check out this Gizmodo post on Social Intelligence, the company that’s figuring out how your future employer will go about checking your reputation online.

Social Intelligence grabbed the media’s attention in May, when the FTC ruled it could conduct Web and social-media background checks for employers. Since then, there’s been plenty of griping and speculation about what the company might find and report. Gizmodo is the first outlet to actually put a full background check from the company online -- it belongs to Gizmodo’s own writer, who failed -- and the results are quite instructive.

Employers digging up dirt on potential hires online is nothing new: When Microsoft surveyed American HR professionals in 2009, it found 70% of them had rejected a candidate because of information found online.

But investigating applicants online is legally problematic for employers, because a social-media search can reveal information -- ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, pregnancy -- that they aren't allowed to ask about. And if a rejected job-seeker catches wind that a Facebook-scouring was part of the hiring process, he could have a lawsuit on his hands.

That's where Social Intelligence comes in. The company checks the last seven years of a candidate’s Web and social-media history for specific red flags: evidence of violence, discriminatory attitudes, lawbreaking or sexually explicit activity. If any of those problem behaviors pop up, they go in the report. The rest is filtered out -- even faces and exposed skin in photos are censored, so as to obscure the subject’s race and soothe the hirer’s law department.

The same goes for information that might be embarrassing, but isn’t actionable: Gizmodo’s Mat Honan wrote on his personal website that he drinks “too much beer,” but the company mercifully redacted the line.

So in some ways, if these background checks are going to happen anyway, Social Intelligence is good for job applicants. If you’re an atheist who rails against religion on Facebook or Google+, for example, you’d rather have a third party comb your online presence and report what’s relevant than be subjected to possible bias from a devout HR rep.

On the other hand, there’s enormous potential for false positive hits. Much of what's posted on social media, especially by the generation that grew up with it, isn't meant to be taken at face value. Someone with a dark sense of humor might post about a desire to smother her roommate in her sleep, raising alarms about violence. (For an alarming story about what a dark joke on Facebook could lead to, check out "Act One" of last week's This American Life episode.) A Tweet lampooning racist attitudes could be flagged if the sarcasm isn’t sufficiently obvious. And if you’ve seen a high-school kid’s Facebook wall lately, you know many of them are littered with more casual drug references and racial slurs than an N.W.A. album.

The “sexually explicit” category is troubling, too. Unless there are signs of a sexual harassment risk, it’s hard to see how an applicant’s nudism or S&M fetish could be relevant in the office. And women could unfairly bear the brunt of the red-flags for racy photos: Consider the rise of “revenge porn,” where (mostly) ex-boyfriends splash their former lovers’ most private images on the Web, often alongside their names and Facebook accounts.

Of course, it's not that hard to protect yourself if you know what you're doing. Many cautious people simply keep their social accounts private, and if there’s nothing damaging about you on a website you don’t control, that should be enough. As Gizmodo notes, creating an email address just for your job search is probably a good idea, too -- your personal email can link you to message boards, Craigslist ads and plenty of other venues where you might have incriminated yourself.

The less savvy, though, are probably screwed. So if your teen sister likes to quote gangsta rap lyrics in her status updates, and she wants to be hirable in the next seven years, you might want to tell her to zip it.
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.