Although I hope any engineer can benefit on occasion from this blog, I am especially keen to discuss matters that younger engineers and engineering students can use. One concern I’ve addressed before continues to come up in news reports, and now a scholarly article by William Herbert in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. For those of you who use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s something you ignore at your peril: the increasing practice of “cybervetting” by firms looking to hire new staff.
In the old days, meaning pre-Internet, young people did foolish things just as much or more so than they do now. Suppose a group of engineering students in 1980 went out and had a little too much to drink, found some young women in the same condition (back then the vast majority of engineering students were men), and did things that, say, they wouldn’t want their parents to know about. And suppose that one of the engineers brought along a camera and took pictures of the proceedings. Short of blackmail, there’s nothing much that one could do with such pictures, and normally they’d either be forgotten, or turn up some day when the now-soberly-married-with-children husband gets a question from his wife who is cleaning out the attic: Is this you in this picture? And who’s that girl?”
But fast-forward to today. We engineers have transformed the social world of young people around the world. Cell phones and digital cameras and Internet connections are ubiquitous. The barriers to mass duplication of embarrassing images of all kinds are so low that the only thing standing in the way is often one’s inhibitions, which alcohol or a party atmosphere can lower so much that one does things without thinking of the consequences. Only now, the consequences can damage your career. In his article, Herbert cites two surveys that show over 70% of job recruiters admit that they do online searches (“cybervetting”) of potential hires, and just as many say they have rejected applications based on information they have found that way. This means that when you apply for a job, you can assume your potential employer is going to do some checking up on whatever publicly accessible information is out there about you. And because the operators of social media have strong financial motivations to make more information easy to get at, it’s likely that if you’ve ever posted anything you might not want someone to see, they’ll be able to see it anyway.
In the current economy there are all kinds of reasons for employers to reject applicants. But this is one you can do something about. It’s unreasonable to recommend that young people avoid social media entirely. It’s just a part of life now, and unless you become a hermit and stay away from all social events, it’s hard not to be included in group pictures, and some of those pictures may end up looking ambiguous later, to say the least. The point is, things that used to be private matters are now no longer under a single person’s control. Some guy you don’t even know might take a picture of some foolishness at a bar and you just might happen to be in the picture, and someone might tell the photographer your name. That’s all it takes for you to be famous (or infamous) in places where you have no idea your image has turned up.
And that assumes you have good judgment, which is not always the case. Many employees have lost their good jobs because of a lack of discretion regarding negative things they say about their employer on semi-private blogs. This is a gray area that requires judgment and discretion. Many companies have internal chatrooms, sort of online water-coolers, where employees virtually gather to discuss all kinds of things, and obviously one’s employer is aware of those comments. What you may not realize is that at least in the U. S., your employer has the presumptive right to look at all your electronic communications that use facilities provided by the employer. So if you send emails having nothing to do with your job, but use your employer’s network or computers to do it, they can legally read those emails as long as they have met certain minimal requirements regarding notification and so on. This is a surprise to a lot of people, but it’s true.
Employers have limits too. Herbert describes a case in which an airline pilot ran a blog which was password-protected explicitly to keep the airline he worked for from seeing it, but a vice-president of the airline persuaded another pilot to let him gain access to the blog. This action violated the terms of the blog access rules, and the pilot sued. In this case, the pilot was taking what I regard as reasonable precautions to restrict access to persons that were sympathetic with his position. But privacy is only a password away from being violated on the web, and all it takes is one person violating such trust to blow the lid off, so to speak.
By now I hope you have a bigger picture of what can happen if one’s youthful romps of an indiscreet kind show up on the computer of a recruiter whose idea of a good time may not match yours. Things are more complicated than they used to be, but that doesn’t mean you can’t both enjoy the benefits of social media and get and hold a good job. Perhaps it sounds a little extreme these days, but it’s worth considering the advice of an older professor I knew who was asked about things to watch out for when writing reports and other technical documents. He said: “One rule I’ve always followed is never to write down anything that I wouldn’t mind showing up on the front page of the New York Times.” As a matter of fact, I don’t believe anything he did or wrote ever did show up anywhere in theNew York Times, but it’s not bad advice, all the same.