Playing e-Detective

Checking out applicants online can save you trouble--and get you into it.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the March 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When Serge Knystautas is considering applicants for a job, he goes a step beyond reading cover letters and calling references. He uses Web search engines. "By the time we're down to five or 10 candidates and we're figuring out who to bring in for an interview, I'll spend 15 minutes searching [online]," says Knystautas, 28, founder and president of Loki Technologies Inc., a six-employee tech company in Bethesda, Maryland, with annual sales of about $1 million. "It's a good gut check."

Knystautas keeps his searches simple. He pulls up Web sites of former employers, does searches using the applicant's name, peruses university sites, and cruises news archives for postings to chat groups. If the applicant worked on a project with a notable name or has written source code, he might try to see if there's some history of it online.

Knystautas and entrepreneurs like him are trying to simplify and improve hiring processes by surfing the Web. If you know what you're looking for and how to search for it, the Web is the ultimate repository of public information. At least 20 states have already posted their criminal and property databases on the Web, with more to come.

But using the Internet for background checks raises some interesting questions. How seriously should you take the information you find? If you find a picture online of an applicant drinking beer at a party, for example, will that be enough to convince you not to hire that person? What if you're reading up on the wrong individual and you don't realize it?

"The real danger here is that you can take things way out of context," says Richard M. Smith, a Brookline, Massachusetts, Internet security and privacy consultant. "Someone who wants to do this should take [the information] with a grain of salt."

The Background Biz
That may be difficult for entrepreneurs afraid a hire they make will go terribly wrong--for example, say they find an applicant with a history of violence. It's those fears that are spurring more employers to do background checks, says Baxter Gillespie, assistant vice president of the Workplace Solutions division at Alpharetta, Georgia-based Choicepoint Inc., which performs background checks on job applicants for a fee. Choicepoint verifies identity and work experience, checks credit and criminal history, and can "uncover information [applicants] may not have reported to employers," he says.

The events of September 11 have brought the importance of background checks into the limelight. "On the smaller [business] side, we've seen a significant increase in the number of customers," Gillespie says. Employers are expanding the scope of what they look for, searching for records in multiple states where an applicant has lived, for example.

Of the 378,000 background checks Choicepoint did during the first quarter of last year, 9,900 applicants were found to have some sort of criminal conviction they didn't mention on the application, including fraud, theft and forgery. About 1,000 candidates had been charged with assault and battery, 311 with rape or other sex offenses, and 37 had faced murder charges.

Statistics like those are compelling, but Gillespie warns entrepreneurs using the Net on their own to be very careful because the Fair Credit and Reporting Act--which requires anyone handling consumer data to be impartial and protective of individuals' privacy--applies to pre-employment background screening. Ask applicants to sign a waiver if you plan on poking around--or risk a future lawsuit.

Careful and Consistent
Before you dig too deeply, make sure you've got policies for performing online background checks, says Jack Vonder Heide, president of Technology Briefing Centers Inc., a firm in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, that teaches companies how to do background checks on the Web. "It's important once you've got the information to double-check it," Vonder Heide says.

Knystautas doesn't take Web research at face value. "You can't be sure of the quality [of the information] you're getting," he says. "It's a fuzzy science." He backs up Web searches with phone calls and face-to-face meetings with applicants, where he can ask questions based in part on his online research. If he has nagging questions, he asks them. "Unless [what I find online] is something really bad, I don't worry about it too much," he says. So far, he hasn't found anything "really bad" online about applicants, although he has avoided potential investors based on what he's read about them.

If you use the Web to check out job applicants, always confirm the information and don't let your final decision hinge on what you find out over the Internet. Also be prepared for questions about your own background because Internet searches are a two-way street these days. Says Smith, "I would expect that the person being interviewed for a job would also be 'Googling' the company and their future boss. 'Googling' works both directions."


Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area. Contact her at chris@sitting-duck.comor

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