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Facebook Profiles May be Monitored

OCS warns students that recruiters might review online information

By Cyrus M. Mossavar-rahmani, Crimson Staff Writer

According to facebook.com, 108 Harvard students think “Ron Burgundy Is the Balls.” And 237 students find themselves wondering, “What the Fuck am I Going to do With My Life?”

While students may consider facebook.com a fun way to procrastinate and avoid work, joining groups with names such as these, posting inappropriate material, or appearing drunk in a picture could prove to be more than just a social faux-pas.

Corporate recruiters, enticed by the prospect of gaining a new perspective on applicants, have begun to utilize the facebook.com to perform the equivalent of a background check. The idea that the popular college networking site is a sheltered space for students to interact with their peers is looking more and more like a myth.

RECRUITERS ARE WATCHING?

William Wright-Swadel, director of the Office of Career Services (OCS), says that students should carefully consider the amount of information they choose to post on facebook.com because their peers are not the only ones reading it.

“We began to get feedback from recruiters and folks who were contacts of ours across the country, that employers were monitoring [facebook.com] information,” Wright-Swadel says.

OCS staff sent out an e-mail on Nov. 30 over multiple open lists warning students of the dangers of facebook.com and how to best protect themselves.

According to the e-mail, “employers, professors, graduate school admissions committees, or even the media in certain circumstances” may be viewing facebook profiles in the near future.

Spokespeople from major investment banks deny that their firms use the networking site as part of their official hiring process. But one employee from an investment bank acknowledges that there is no way to stop individual recruiters from conducting research on candidates on their own time. The source chose to remain anonymous to avoid compromising his position at the firm.

These recruiters—often recent college graduates—have facebook.com accounts themselves, allowing them to check profiles of job applicants.

Chris R. Hughes ’06, spokesman for facebook.com, says, “It’s not how we originally intended the site to be used. That said, it is within these people’s legal rights to go in and get a better sense of what people are like.”

But Kevin J. Koslosky ’07, co-president of the Harvard Investment Association, says he thinks that the recruiters can still relate to current undergraduates and the information they write in their profiles.

“Most of the firm representatives viewing the profiles are recent graduates. They are not far removed from college and probably remember inappropriate profiles of peers with whom they would gladly work,” he says.

Koslosky does, however, refrain from publicly associating himself with a firm on facebook.com.

“One thing I don’t do is associate myself with a firm in the summer jobs section. This was actually brought up recently by a Wall Street firm; a group of summer analysts wanted to make a facebook group, but were discouraged from doing so by a recruiter,” he says.

STAYING CLEAN

Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin writes in an e-mail that he is concerned about the amount of personal information and inappropriate content shared on facebook profiles.

“I am amazed by the photos and the information students share with one another. I am also surprised by the language that students choose to use and the disconnect that students have around the facebook,” he writes. “I wonder if they realize that language they use could offend others and if they would be willing to tell others in a public forum (not online) some of the things they would write on their profiles.”

Justin M. Orlosky ’09, who is a member of the “Ron Burgundy Is the Balls” and “What the Fuck am I Going to Do With My Life?” groups, says that a student’s facebook profile may not be an accurate reflection of his or her personality.

“It’s definitely possible, people [could be] in unflattering situations and that could reflect poorly on their character when in reality they’re just trying to unwind after a week of copious amounts of work,” says Orlosky.

The best course of action for students who are concerned about their profiles is to imagine if a parent, significant other, or mentor were reading it, says Wright-Swadel.

“Would these be the kinds of things you would be saying if you wanted them to write a letter of recommendation for you?” he asks.

OCS staff also offered in the e-mail to help students figure out where to draw the line.

“If you have any questions about where the line of appropriate versus inappropriate lies, we would be happy to help,” the e-mail states. “Overall, if you are in doubt, leave it out.”

Another option students have is to avoid self-censoring their profiles by simply making it harder for recruiters to get access.

“For students who don’t want alums to be able to see their profile information all they have to do is go into their privacy settings,” Hughes says, which he adds is an easy way for students to protect themselves from the eyes of recruiters.

The link to privacy settings can be found at the bottom of the left menu on facebook.com, by clicking on “my privacy.” Students concerned about recruiters viewing their profiles can scroll down to the “who can see my contact info” headline. Then by clicking on “advanced” students can decide to block alumni.

But facebook.com’s privacy policy states that the site may provide access to student’s personal information to third parties to facilitate business and that it actively gathers more information than the student provides.

“Facebook also collects information about you from other sources, such as newspapers and instant messaging services. This information is gathered regardless of your use of the Web Site,” the policy states.

FACEBOOK ETHICS

While there is no question that a student’s facebook profile can be a treasure trove of information for recruiters, it is less clear whether it is ethical or even good practice for a firm to tap into this resource.

“It’s definitely an infringement on privacy, because whether it’s legally right for them to do it, I’m not sure, but ethically it’s definitely questionable,” says Orlosky. “Their intentions aren’t the purest.”

Wright-Swadel says that he does not think recruiters should turn to facebook.com for information about possible employees.

“I’m not sure that it’s ethical,” he says. “I wish employers would not use the facebook, recognizing these are being written by students for each other.”

But Koslosky says that facebook.com is fair game.

“Given that individuals post the information themselves in an accessible online forum, it doesn’t seem unethical for an employer to look at a facebook profile,” he writes in an e-mail.

A spokesperson at a major investment bank says that his firm does not want to be associated with facebook.com.

“We do not use [facebook.com] in any way, shape, or form, absolutely nowhere in the hiring and recruiting process in any official capacity,” he says.

An employee at a large firm, who says he is familiar with recruiting practices, says of facebook.com, “It is a social networking site used for dating, hooking up, and tracking people down at other colleges.”

He adds, “Who knows what is going to turn into? Right now it’s a Wild West kind of thing. People post all kinds of things. That is not an appropriate channel for a mainstream public company.”

A representative at the admissions office of Harvard Business School says they do not refer to facebook.com when evaluating applicants. “We don’t review anything other than the applications submitted online,” she says.

Tobias Loss-Eaton, who works in the Harvard Law School admissions office, also says that there is no policy authorizing the use of facebook.com at the Law School.

BEYOND RECRUITERS

While incriminating content on a facebook profile may affect an applicant’s candidacy, there could also be consequences at the university level.

According to McLoughlin, facebook.com has been the topic at student affairs administrators conferences that he has attended.

“Topics have been when can university judicial boards use information from the facebook for a case....Another one is about information on the facebook offending groups of students, defaming and singling out an individual, etc.,” he writes.

A student at Fisher College was expelled in October because of his criticism of a campus police officer on facebook.com. But Hughes says this is the only time he is aware of that a student has been disciplined as a result of posting on the site.

McLoughlin says that there is no precedent for him to refer to regarding facebook.com, but the College may also consider disciplinary action in specific cases.

Another privacy concern is the misuse of personal information on facebook profiles.

“If the Defense Department were to reinstate the draft, it would have 8.5 million records of would-be soldiers at its fingertips—with birth dates, skill sets and contact information,” Melody Joy Kramer wrote in a column in The Daily Pennsylvanian last month.

But Hughes dismisses the threat of the federal government gaining access to student profiles. It is “very much a legal matter and requires us being subpoenaed,” he says.

Ultimately, it appears that this generation of students must grapple with the fact that digital technology will bring up issues unimaginable a generation earlier.

“We’ve all been 18, 19, 20, so I’m not sure all of the things I would have said to a group of my peers is something I would want recorded for posterity,” says Wright-Swadel.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 says facebook.com is a valuable networking tool.

“Procrastination aside, facebook is an amazing network for communication. And one can post pictures of one’s youth,” Gross writes in an e-mail.

But McLoughlin says students should be vigilant about what they choose to share on facebook.com.

“I am not sure that the facebook will be around in 20 years or that the information is cataloged in a way that people will be able to access old information,” McLoughlin writes.

“The litmus test for students: would you be willing to have public the information you are posting now? Could you justify, in front of others, the information you post?” he writes.

—Staff writer Cyrus M. Mossavar-Rahmani can be reached at crahmani@fas.harvard.edu.

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