Beware The Power Of The Google Search

Google searchGoogle has become an incredibly effective research tool for business. It allows businesses to uncover information about current or prospective employees, suppliers and contractors that would have simply been unavailable several years ago.

As employers are routinely using Google to do instantaneous background searches of prospective (and current) employees, the tide is also turning in the other direction. The reputations of businesses, business owners and high level management are increasingly being subjected to online attacks.

It is estimated by some studies that up to 20 per cent of employees regularly submit comments on posts to blogs, forums and chat rooms. In the ‘old days’ reputations took many, many years of diligence, hard work and good service to establish. If a client had a bad experience, his ability to tell others about it was limited to those within ear shot. Now, one person with access to a computer can scuttle the hard-won reputation of a business by posting an account of his experience online, which can then be read by anybody at any location around the world.

This, in itself, is a problem for business. As more and more people rely on Google as a source of information, the word of the nameless, faceless blogger is apparently given as much credence as any other source of ‘legitimate’ information.

Some online publications are strictly controlled and legitimate. For example, after legal proceedings are issued, most courts place details of those proceedings on their website portals for public access. Whilst specific details of each case are usually not published online, the name of the parties and the official steps that have been taken in the proceedings are published.

This means that any court proceeding in which a party was involved is almost certain to appear in a Google search of that person’s name. Thus, an employer concerned about the character of a potential employee might be tempted to do a Google search to find out whether he/she has ever been involved in court action.

Even then, there is no guarantee that full details of the allegations made by a party to that court proceeding will actually be available for public consumption. Sometimes judges make orders restricting the general public dissemination of information raised in court documents and in court hearings for protective reasons.

Therefore, whilst a Google search might reveal the existence of a particular court case, it will often be that only a summary of the case is revealed. Without further detail, an employer might be unable to make an informed decision about the nature of the allegations in the case – was this person the victim of unacceptable workplace behaviour or are they simply a trouble maker searching for their next target? Of course the court file can be searched in an attempt to gain that information, but are most employers likely to go to that extent?

Much like many other sources of online information, court case details can often be found on the internet many months after the proceedings conclude. Any information found in a Google search should be checked against other reliable sources of information. If, through a Google search, an employer found out that a prospective employee had been involved in a court case against a former employer for unfair dismissal, that might be grounds for caution. At that point, the employer would be wise to undertake further enquiries, including old fashioned reference checks, to ascertain the overall suitability of the employee.

While online information might be interesting – and to some extent useful – employers are well advised to proceed with caution. Ideally it should be used to complement existing sources of information, rather than being used as a substitute for it.

Justin Lawrence
Justin Lawrence is a partner with Henderson & Ball Solicitors, 17 Cotham Road, Kew, Victoria, and practises in the areas of Commercial Litigation, Criminal, Family and Property Law. Henderson & Ball has Law Institute of Victoria accredited specialists in the areas of Business Law, Property Law and Commercial Litigation. Justin Lawrence and Henderson & Ball can be contacted on 03 9261 8000.