Question: I'm thinking about hiring my first employee and am looking at three very well-qualified candidates. Is there anything legally wrong with researching each candidate on the web and seeing what I can find out about their backgrounds?
Answer: The short answer is no. When someone puts information about themselves on the internet, there's no reasonable expectation of privacy. But (and it's a big but), you should be careful when using any information you find about a candidate on the web, for two reasons: The information may be false or misleading, and the information may cause you to discriminate illegally against a candidate.
Let's say you're checking out a candidate and you come up with a blog saying the person has been sued for unpaid child support by two previous spouses. If that information is not 100 percent true and accurate, the candidate may sue the blogger for libel or defamation of character, especially if he can prove you relied on that information when denying him employment. Even though you're not the one defaming the candidate, he will almost certainly drag you into his lawsuit as a material witness.
More important, by searching the web, you'll likely learn information that may lead you to discriminate illegally against a candidate, such as the candidate's political affiliation, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and health or medical history (for example, although a person's medical records are sealed to the public, some websites publish testimonials by cancer survivors).
Always try to verify with an independent, reliable source any anecdotal information you read on the web, especially if it comes from a blog, chat room, bulletin board or other source that's likely not fair and balanced. If your web search uncovers some negative dish about a candidate and you have reason to believe it's true, always give the candidate a chance to explain his or her side of the story before making an employment decision.
Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, most recently Small Business Survival Guide. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.