A majority of business owners will check the references you list on your resume or application materials, especially if they are serious about hiring you. In addition, they will very likely do an online search to see what shows up. Neither process is illegal. However, what they learn cannot be used to discriminate.
You Can Fight Unfair References
Most job applications ask for your work history, complete with contact information for your past employers. When you supply this information, you give your prospective employer the right to call these companies. However, most states have defamation laws.
If your previous employers say anything about you that is not true, you can file a lawsuit against them. As long as the information is fact, such as a true statement that you were late 55 out of the 60 days you worked there, this is not defamation. If you think that a previous employer is giving false, negative references about you, you can hire an investigator.
Your Online Identity Shouldn't Be Used Against You
If your social networking pages are open to the public or easily accessible, you may be giving prospective employers a lot of personal information about yourself. Technically, employers can't use this sort of information against you.
It's illegal in many states to refuse to hire someone because of activities outside the work environment. It's also against federal and most state laws to not hire someone based on protected categories like religion, race, nationality, disability, gender, or sexual preference. Employers can't ask you about these things in job interviews, but the information might be apparent from your online profiles.
A Victim of Mistaken Identity
A prospective employer who does an online search for your name might find another person with the same name and postings that reflect poorly. If you're mistaken for someone else, your employer should take further steps to make sure the online identity is really you. However, not all employers will take the extra time. You might also have a hard time proving that you were turned down for a job for this reason.
It Pays to Take Precautions
If you're active online, take some simple precautions to prevent prospective employers from getting information. Google your own name and see what's out there. If you find misinformation, contact the website administrator and demand that it be removed immediately.
You can adjust the security settings on your social networking sites to control access. Some employers, however, are even asking job-seekers for their usernames and passwords. This is not illegal. When this happens, you need to decide what you value most - your privacy or the potential job.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding an employer's use of references and online searches to investigate a job-seeker is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an employment lawyer.