It's common for employers to carry out some form of background check in relation to job applicants, and these checks range from full financial and criminal-records screening to simply checking where you worked before. In terms of your internet history, employers can look at anything that you've posted publicly online. What they cannot do is access your personal computer or any social media accounts that you have password protected.
What Checks Can Employers Run?
It's really up to the employer as to which kind of background check to run, with a few legal restrictions. Some employers will run a full background check including education, past employment records, criminal records and credit checks; others will do little more than call your references. Where the job is sensitive or grants access to vulnerable people, such as working with children, drug and alcohol screening tests may be performed. Employers are permitted to run all of these checks in the U.S. You have to consent to the check.
It's OK to Check Your Public Internet History
Some parts of your internet history are public record. This includes your social media profiles that you haven't set to "private," personal blog sites and any other information that you post publicly and share online. Because this information is public, anyone can read it, including a would-be employer. The employer doesn't have to disclose that he's looking at your public digital footprint, either. Under the Fair Credit Reporting laws, an employer only has to tell you that he's going to run a background check when he uses a company in the business of compiling background information. If he checks you out himself, he can do it without telling you.
No One's Going to Check Your Private Browsing History
An employer cannot ask you to hand over your password to access your private profile on a social networking website. The employer has no legal right to access this information without a court order. Similarly, an employer cannot check your internet browsing history on your personal computer. To do so, the potential employer would have to seize your computer and smartphone device, and only the police have the power to do this as part of a criminal investigation. If an employer asks you to divulge this information, you are within your rights to say "no."
A Company Computer is Fair Game
The only time an employer can check your browsing history is when you have used a company computer. Then, the computer belongs to the company, and the company can monitor anything that comes over its network including files, emails, keystrokes, instant messaging and yes, your browsing history. The situation may be different where, for example, you use your own laptop for both business and personal use. Then, you have a right to privacy for anything sent over your personal network. It's a good idea to check the company handbook which usually spells out the policy on computer-usage issues.
Employers Cannot Discriminate
When making a hiring decision, employers must apply the same standards to everyone, regardless of their gender, race, national origin, religion, disability, family status or age. Some states also prohibit discrimination based on political affiliation or other characteristics. So, for example, an employer cannot refuse to hire you because a Facebook search shows that you have a history of depression. What the employer can do is request medical information or conduct a medical examination after he has made a conditional job offer. However, he can only ask for medical data if it's relevant to the job and the requirement is the same for all incoming employees within the same job category.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a business writer. Her articles have appeared on numerous business sites including Typefinder, Women in Business, Startwire and Indeed.com.