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Wednesday, October 13, 2004
When Employers Google You, It Can Hurt Your Chances
The Wall Street Journal's Career has an article about how prospective employers are now Googling job applicants and in many cases, finding damaging information that can hurt their job prospects. From the article:

Sometimes the damaging information comes from former employers. Ms. Dixon says she has been contacted by a teacher who was fired from a prior job whose school board included her firing in online meeting minutes. Making matters worse, she has an unusual name. So when prospective employers Google her, the minutes pop right up. "She literally has not found a job because of that," Ms. Dixon said.
I can understand that entirely. I Google my name all the time, and thankfully, the Internet has been kind to me so far. I remember a situation where a political party had caused a minor scandal on a college campus during student government elections. Someone said to me, "What does it matter? It's only college. They'll have the political stuff for their resume, but it won't say 'cheated and lied to get there'". I explained that since the student newspaper wrote about the situation, and named all the parties involved, a Google search for anyone involved in the scandal turns up the article on the scandal in the results. Some internet content is practically immortal, and it can come to bite you later on.

What can you do to avoid embarrassing search results about yourself? The answer is to not be like John Kerry. One major mistake Kerry made, at least early on in the campaign, was to let the other side frame too many of the issues (the Swift Boat veterans, flip-flops). The secret to controlling your Google search results is to write the content yourself. If you have a blog, it is virtually guaranteed to be the number one result for your name, so long as you have been writing it for a while. Every so often, another blog will link to yours with the phrase "Nathan Weinberg says...", and those sort of links are gold in vanity searches, and will be even more important in the improvements Google is currently making in its interface. The more relevant the blog to your industry, the better it looks for you. If a potential employer searches for you, and all he or she sees are articles by you on various websites, and other websites praising your articles, that is a whole heck of a lot better than a result that says:

Weed is good!
... and while the cops weren't looking, I passed the drugs to Nathan, the biggest pothead I know. Later, he would down four tabs of acid at... - 19k - Cached - Similar pages
Trust me, that guy ain't getting a job anywhere, ever.

>> "Weed is good!"

Thanks Nathan, really. I just spewed a good cup of mushroom tea through my nose and it is all over my monitor. What a trip man, all the websites I visit now look a little wavy!
Great. My luck, this post winds up my number one search result.
Employers and recruiters who seek out "digital dirt" on job candidates and employees rather than concentrate on on-the-job skills and performance are not only infringing on employees' and job seekers' privacy and dignity--they're undermining our most basic rights and freedoms.

Indeed, the way in which some employers in our "free" United States are now trying to coerce or control what employees and applicants do on their own time and off employer premises is an outrage that demands concerted action by every concerned worker--and by our society.

In the absence of laws banning such practices in most states, it seems that some out-of-control employers now would, if they could, bring back the long-dead practice of requiring workers, as a condition of employment, to shop only at the company store and live in the company town. This sort of thing is a major threat to your freedom--and mine.

Once one allows any employer to dictate one aspect of one's private life, where does it stop?

It is time to give "Big Brother"--today's King George III--the political and economic equivalent of a stiff public slap in the face and to restrain him with laws and other actions that will put him in his place. To let him continue as he may choose is truly scary.

For most if not all employers and recuiters snooping into "digital dirt" on employees' and applicants' off-the-job lives, there seems to be some sort of obsession with making sure that only the "right" types of people are hired, perhaps in the name of making sure employees have the "right" attitudes and, to use that now-favorite corporate buzz word, are a good "fit" (read: are sufficiently cowed and properly docile to accept existing abuses and any possible future ones the employer might decide to inflict), why not require employees and job applicants to submit to employer monitoring--again, the technology for this is already widely available!--of whatever they, even (indeed, especially) on their own time and off employer premises, read, watch, or listen to; who they associate with and what kinds of organizations they participate in; what Web sites they visit and what they send or receive online; and the like.

We can't have employees who dare to write or read postings like this one or otherwise explore, much less spread, ideas about "controversial matters" that the employer might not like, such as notions about fairer tax policies and a stronger "social safety net," or--horror of horrors--about (gasp!) employees and job applicants actually having rights and about even daring to regulate business to stop privacy abuses, pay inequities, the destruction of health-care, pension, and other benefits, or the like, now, can we? Gotta protect that almighty bottom line and the freedom to select our employees and run our business as we see fit!

Indeed, at least as scary as employer attempts to regulate off-hours, off-premises smoking and the like are cases where employers fire, demote, otherwise discipline, or refuse to hire people based on such irrelevant things as their off-hours choices of products or political activities.

Employment discrimination based on one's off-the-job political activities, indeed, seem to be rising to a level not known since the era of McCarthyism, with its blacklisting and "political clearances." As has been widely reported, including in a story on CBS's _60 Minutes_, an Alabama woman, Lynne Gobbell, was in 2004 fired from her job at a manufacturing plant for having a John Kerry bumper sticker on her personal car. (After the case made world headlines, she was offered a job--indeed, one with health insurance--by the Kerry campaign, but few employees thus treated are that fortunate.)

As a longtime progressive political activist, I myself have found that many people, especially in today's job-scarce economy, are now hesitant to take part in any form of political activism--writing a letter to a newspaper, calling a radio talk show, posting something on the Internet, taking part in a march or a rally--for fear that their employer might somehow frown on such actions. Today, the Internet and like means make it frighteningly easy for employers to snoop into job applicants' or employees' personal beliefs and activities.

Indeed, in 2002, during a long job hunt after a 2001 layoff, I was once denied a plum job as an editor with a nonprofit educational association in part because of what the employer, when I challenged its vague (and contradiction-ridden) claim of things being simply a matter of "subtle factors" involving "fit"--meanwhile, I suspected and alleged sex discrimination (the editorial department involved was all-female and stayed so)--called, in McCarthyesque terms, my "record" of involvement in "controversial issues," namely, feminism and children's rights--certainly never brought up in any interview or correspondence, but found after the "responsible" employer decided to do an Internet search.

I'd like to ask this employer--and many others--this question: Who do you think you are, you nosy twit?

This sleazy practice, too, while disturbing and reprehensible, is in many states, mine included, still apparently legal. This, too, must be stopped through legislation like California's, which specifically forbids employers from dictating or attempting to dictate employees' political activity.

Better yet, every state and Congress should adopt legislation, as a few states have, protecting the right of employees and job applicants to engage in any lawful off-hours, off-premises activities they choose without fear of employment discrimination.

*Generally, such activities are none of an employer's business* unless they pose an actual and substantial conflict of interest or otherwise materially and substantially impair one's ability to do one's job. Mere dislike of or disagreement with a worker's political views or skittishness about "company image" or possible "controversy" is not enough.

Ironically, the fear that many workers now have of employment discrimination based on their political activities is the very thing that keeps them from taking the steps, both as individuals and with others, to bring about an end to this and related abuses. It is also a significant brake on long-needed, long-overdue social and economic progress in America--indeed, to efforts to stop this country's headlong rush, especially under George W. Bush and his ilk, back to the days of Herbert Hoover--indeed, of William McKinley.

It is time to reclaim your and our rights--before they are lost forever, before we are all forced to live at the mercy of abusive employers in a nationwide, high-tech version of the company town that controls not only our work tasks but our other actions, our minds, and our souls "24/7." It is not about the bottom line; it's about power and control. We, the people, must reclaim our rights.

In the famous words of Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice Edward G. Ryan, words that indelibly impressed University of Wisconsin student Robert M. La Follette--later to be widely considered Wisconsin's greatest governor: "The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine: 'Which shall rule--wealth or man? Which shall lead--money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations--educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?'" (Of course, I'd prefer Ryan have used nonsexist language!)

So write your state and national lawmakers, your governor, and, yes, even President Bush, and urge them all to support legislation protecting the rights of employees and job applicants to engage in lawful off-hours, off-employer-premises activities without fear of employment discrimination.

Urge them also to replace the dangerous prevailing concept of "employment at will"--under which an employer, absent law or contract provision to the contrary, may fire any employee for any reason, no reason, or even a bad or morally wrong reason--with a "just cause" standard, similar to the law now in Montana. Every worker deserves and has the right to this most basic of protections. "Employment at will" (read: employment at whim) literally does mean that "they can fire you if they don't like the way you part your hair." This, too, is outrageous. This must end.

As Alexander Hamilton said over 200 years ago, the power over a person's subsistence is a power over that person's will. The history of liberty and justice in America has often involved--indeed, required--regulating and limiting not only the power of our public governments but the power of such "private governments" as corporations and other employers over individuals, their choices, and their rights. So take action today!

Let's say to employers: Our skills, attention, and loyalty are yours eight hours a day, 40 hours a week; the rest of our lives belong to us, and to us alone. For not only ourselves but our fellow citizens and future generations, we are taking back our lives, our privacy, and our rights.

For more information about these and related issues, check out these links:

Do let me know what you think of all this. Thanks for your time and thought--and even more for your efforts!

For your freedoms and rights and mine,

Scott Enk
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