The circumstances surrounding the forced resignation this month of Shirley Sherrod from the United States Department of Agriculture highlights both the positives and the perils of making employment-based decisions based on information obtained from the Web.
We all know that Ms. Sherrod was forced to resign after a blogger posted limited excerpts of a speech she gave to the NAACP. Those excerpts depicted her as a racist, some argued, resulting in various government and non-government officials calling for her to leave her post. However, once the full video was reviewed, it became clear that what Ms. Sherrod had been describing to the NAACP was, in fact, reflective of just the opposite; that her story was an example of one who moved beyond race when it came to helping someone in need. The backlash continues, as many in the current administration have gone so far as to offer her a new job in the Department.
Employers – both private and public – should heed this valuable lesson. We are all more than aware of the plethora of information that can be obtained about current employees, and even inquiring job applicants. As easy as it is to get this information, it is critical that employers do not fall into the lazy trap in order to avoid potential liability. For one, employers may learn more than they really need to know (or should know) about lawful activities in which current or potential employees are engaging, as well as about organizations in which they are active or personal characteristics that are not otherwise apparent from a resume or “normal” job interview.
Second, the information obtained, and relied upon for a particular employment-related decision, may be, simply, wrong. Perhaps only an edited excerpt of a larger source of information was obtained, or perhaps the subject of the information turns out to be an individual other than the current or potential employee. Relying on that information as the basis for an adverse job action is, at best, embarrassing, and, at worst, a potential liability exposure risk.
Employer Take Away – What should every employer take away from this development?
(1) Make sure you know exactly what you are looking for when it comes to seeking Web information about a current or potential employee, and that you have assigned the appropriate individual to obtain that information at the right time in the decision-making process.
(2) Make sure any employment-related decision resulting from Web-based information is fully supported and documented. Do not let the informalities and ease of the Internet lull you into a failure to do your due diligence.