One of my students applied for a job as a summer camp counselor at a Christian camp. She said the interview went well, and it looked like she was going to get the job. Then after a couple of weeks she got a letter from the camp that she was turned down for the job. She said she called them to find out what had happened, at which point they disclosed that they had looked at her Facebook profile and saw pictures of her binge drinking with her friends. This behavior was inconsistent with the kind of values they promoted at the camp, and they decided that she would not be a good fit with the camp.
This anecdote got us thinking. In essence, the camp’s decision was based on a new variety of selection technique, one that we have not really addressed yet as a field. Specifically, the use of the Internet to screen job applicants as a kind of background check was a new approach. Of course, selection experts have been discussing using the Internet for submitting applications and resumés, as well as for selection testing (with its issues of test security, measurement equivalence, etc.), but little or nothing in I-O psychology has been done on the topic of screening job applicants on the basis of what is available on the Internet about them. Some initial work has been done in the measurement of personality from webpages (e.g., Gosling, Ko, Manarelli, & Morris, 2002; Marcus, Machilek, & Schütz, 2006; Vazire & Gosling, 2004), and a number of court cases have appeared in the press on Internet background checks for employment (e.g., Mullins v. Department of Commerce, 2007; Spanierman v. Hughes, 2008; Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, 2009). Practitioner websites and blogs started paying attention to this phenomenon as well (e.g., Fishman & Morris, 2010; Kowske & Southwell, 2006; Rosen, 2010; Juffras, 2010). The Society for Human Resource Management has been keeping track of the use of the Internet for screening candidates since at least 2006 (SHRM, 2008), and the trend has been growing. But 5 years ago in much of the I-O and management academic literature, this intriguing and disturbing new trend was strangely absent.