Is Google Part of your Hiring Process

I read with interest the news reports of the recent lawsuit filed against the University of Kentucky by an Astronomer who claims that his religion cost him a job.  As reported by the New York Times:

In late November, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that the case could go forward, and a trial is scheduled for February. The case represents a rare example, experts say, of a lawsuit by a scientist who alleges academic persecution for his religious faith.

Both sides agree that Dr. Gaskell, 57, was invited to the university, in Lexington, for a job interview. In his lawsuit, he says that at the end of the interview, Michael Cavagnero, the chairman of the physics and astronomy department, asked about his religious beliefs.

“Cavagnero stated that he had personally researched Gaskell’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says. According to Dr. Gaskell, the chairman said Dr. Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his “expression of them would be a matter of concern” to the dean.

What is of particular interest is the “smoking gun” in the case:

For the plaintiff, the smoking gun is an e-mail dated Sept. 21, 2007, from a department staff member, Sally A. Shafer, to Dr. Cavagnero and another colleague. Ms. Shafer wrote that she did an Internet search on Dr. Gaskell and found links to his notes for a lecture that explores, among other topics, how the Bible could relate to contemporary astronomy.

“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.”

Notice the seed from which this lawsuit sprouted – an internet search about a job applicant.  I have no knowledge about the University of Kentucky’s hiring policies or practices but I doubt that this internet search was an official part of them.  This is an area that I have advised employers about again and again and it is an area that continues to cause problems.  Given the easy availability of information online, we are at a point where the issue simply must be addressed in hiring policies.  Whether your business decides to forego Google in the hiring process or prefers to develop a sound strategy to use the information that is out there, it needs to be handled consistently through a well crafted policy.  If it is not, expect to encounter your own smoking gun at some point. 

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