Last week I attended a panel of library directors giving tips to library students on entering the job market. They discussed resumes and interviews and gave the perspective of the people on the other side of the table. By and large, it all the things I've heard dozens of times already. But there were a few points where I was both shocked and appalled by the discussion.
The first thing that stuck in my throat was the comment from a male academic library director who stated:
"When you're going on the job market, manage your online brand of yourself, because I'm going to google you, and if I don't like what I see, then you're out."
I've heard this statement before in various contexts, so it was not unexpected or unheard of, but I still couldn't quite swallow it whole. I had a strong gut reaction to the question. Initially I felt that looking on sites such as facebook or myspace to make hiring decisions would constitute an invasion of privacy. These social sites are almost entirely unrelated to professional activities and are the very sites that are blocked in many public libraries and federal agencies. It didn't sink in as to why it was bothering me so much until some other students brought up the issue of how to handle discriminatory interview questions in terms of being females in their child bearing years. Here was a untraceable way for a manager to engage in that kind of discrimination without having to disclose about it.
I believe in a sharp distinction between my professional and personal lives. What I do at work I would like to leave as work, and what I do at home I would like to leave as my home life. However, because I have worked in LGBT archives and history projects, I've gotten some bleed over between the two, especially in terms of my 'internet branding of myself'. When I worked at the LGBT Resource Center at the University of California, Davis, the director of the center was perfectly candid in warning me about potential hiring descrimination if I was listing the job experience on my resume. It was general practice to suggest to all the employees that as an alternative to listing the LGBT Center as my employer, I could always list our department of the Cross Cultural Center instead. However, as a result of this employment, I'm still cited in various LGBT higher education websites as being a resource or a contributor. There's no hiding that I was playing on the gay team. But why should I be ashamed to have worked in a well paying, legitimate, and complex work environment within student affairs at a Tier I Research Institution?
There is also the problem that with every passing year, there is more bleed over from the physical to the digital. Every year it gets easier to carry over ephemera from the physical world into the digital one. Every year there are more pictures of pride parades, more pictures of political rallies, more pictures of nightlife posted on the internet. I see more and more of people's personal lives becoming accessible on places like facebook and flickr as their lives become integrated with digital technologies. It has become simple to use these social networking tools to facilitate cocktail parties, network with high school friends, chat with classmates, etc., but it is being done in a forum that is now being recorded, word for word, picture for picture, and may also be accessible to outsiders. I don't think we should underestimate the implications that this has for fundamental changes to our conception of privacy.
However, regardless of what bleeds over from the physical world into the digital, it doesn't change the fact that just because it is possible, does not mean that should be considered ethical. The ability to google a potential hire also opens the door for a manager to engage in discriminatory hiring practices. It allows the manager to ask questions of the candidate's background that would be unquestionably unethical to ask in a job interview itself. It is also highly problematic to require candidates to mask every personal element of their digital lives that could form the grounds of discriminatory hiring practices.
Beyond the issues of offering up information that ethically shouldn't be using to make hiring decisions, there are other questions that I have about using to google to evaluate potential hires. If a manager makes hiring decisions based on a medium that librarians, by and large, universally disparage as an unreliable source of information, then it calls into question the manager's core competencies as an employer. Does the manager have the skills to conduct a successful job search without resorting to sources of information that are not verifiable (such as facebook or myspace)? I used to work with a billing system where we had full access to all the personal information imaginable that the university retained, and we still regularly confused patrons and had difficulties establishing matching identities between the billing system and our patrons. I don't think that we were particularly incompetent, it's just that there were hundreds of thousands of people in their database. And if you expand that search process to the internet at large, the pool of potential hits expands into the millions.
Finally, it is also important to note that librarians are going to look hypocritical and ineffectual if they make a stand to protect the privacy of their patrons and ignore the privacy of their employees, even if they are only potential employees.