Can your past prevent a future?

With the continued spread of social networks, blogs, and other personalized media, individuals have provide for mass consumption an unparalleled amount of personal information. After the data reaches the internet, companies such as Acxiom begin collecting the information to store in massive databases. Through these public databases, along with the social networks and the careful use of search engines (i.e. Google), companies evaluate prospective employees to determine whether they are viable candidates for a position. The question I pose: Can your past prevent a future? Before answering this question, we must first create a better understanding what happens during the hiring process and how your internet persona can affect those decisions.

Privacy is an issue that has been contested for over 400 years in the US, beginning with mail, continuing through telegraphs, party-lines, telephones, and now the World Wide Web (See American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right for more information on the subject). With the advent of the internet, however, privacy has been brought to the forefront as more individuals readily post personal information to the web. Unlike past generation where an individual could pick up and move when something went wrong, the opportunity to delete oneself has disappeared. With no way to remove data after it has reached the internet, individuals are losing their ability to start over when unwanted information comes to light.

Due to the prevalent amount of information available on the internet, companies have begun utilizing the web as a vital source for their pre-employment screening process and background checks. It is my opinion that though this resource is invaluable to employers when reviewing applications, it is unethical to do so without prior knowledge given to the prospective employees. Should information be found, the prospective employee should be given the opportunity to clarify the misunderstanding. When companies begin using social networks to obtain data, they are placing themselves at risk of being sued by individuals who do not gain employment. This can happen because when the employer sees a person’s social information, they gain access to federally protected data (i.e. race, gender, disabilities, et cetera)(Johnson). This is made worse because the legality of pre-employment screening using social networks has yet to be established in court (Johnson).

Background checks, or pre-employment screenings, involve reviewing past employment verifications, credit scores, and criminal histories in order to evaluate a prospective employee. Companies preform background checks as a benefit for themselves to: prevent wasting time, money, and resources on a potential employee, prevent lawsuits for negligent hiring, and provide access to vast databases of personal data. When they add a pre-employment screening as well, the companies peruse social networks, search engines, and public databases. The Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum, Pam Dixon feels that when a company snoops on social networks, “It’s like saying, ‘Can I read your personal diary?’”, which she believes will prevent anyone from using social networks (Johnson).

Unfortunately, many issues can occur when a company begins searching through the internet to attempt learning more about a potential employee. Issues can include misinterpretation of data, irrelevant information to the job, past mistakes, and incorrect person being investigated. With each issue, if the employer found a problem, the job seeker would not be given a chance to contest the collected data. This can be problematic for individuals with common name, or that do not follow society norms.

According to law professor Cass Sustein, norms are “social attitudes of approval and disapproval” or “what ought to be done, and what ought not to be done” (Solove). When an individual does not follow society’s norms, such as having visible tattoos and piercings, they can be viewed poorly by potential employers. This perception can be made more difficult by the internet due to each person having the ability to present their persona without limits. By providing information, photos, videos, and opinions, individuals place themselves on display for the world at large.

In the article Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the garden of Eden, New York City  1908-1936, Haraway discusses the idea of perfection. When Mr. Akeley begins planning his display, it clear that he is seeking perfect specimen to shot, stuff, and present. Akeley even tells an anecdote about his hunt for elephants. During the hunt he comes across an unbelievable specimen that would be perfect, except for a glaring issue of asymmetrical tusks (Haraway 41-42). Akeley sought his idea of perfection in the animals in an attempt to present a grand exhibit. However; by seeking perfection, Akeley lost the opportunity to provide a more realistic display.

This expectation of perfection plays a key role in the hiring process of companies. With the current widespread unemployment, and the plethora of potential employees, the ability for companies to pluck individuals who fit their cookie-cutter mold is on the rise. With the internet, individuals have placed themselves on global display allowing companies to select their perfect image. It is for this reason that society must work to create better safe-guards against the negative spread of information, as well as make hiring practices more transparent so that each party may fully hold themselves accountable.



Garton, Ash Timothy. The File: A Personal History. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Solove, Daniel J. The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

Haraway, D. (1984) “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the garden of Eden, New York City  1908-1936.” Social Text, 20-64

Jones, M, Schuckman, A., and Watson, K. (2004) The Ethics of Pre-Employment Screening Through the Use of the Internet.

“Background Check.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. <>.

“Fact Sheet 16: Employment Background Checks: A Jobseeker’s Guide.” Employment Background Checks: A Jobseeker’s Guide. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. <>.

Lane, Frederick S. American Privacy: The 400-year History of Our Most Contested Right. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2009. Print.

Johnson, Steve. “Facebook Posts May Cost You a Job.” The Post and Courier. 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.

2 thoughts on “Can your past prevent a future?

  1. It is getting out of hand, and until laws are put in place to better protect the employee from such inquiries it will only get worse

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