A new protected class: things you've said

Some years ago, when this site was much smaller than it was today, it was suggested to me that I might want to be careful about what I wrote here lest it get read by a prospective employer who might find a reason in it to decline me employment. Having my website be nothing more than a online resume would be very boring, though, so I declined - in rather more polite terms than I really felt. Besides which, any employer who would do such a thing would clearly not be a good employer to work for. I'm lucky in that I have a pretty desirable skillset, though - not everyone is so fortunate.

I bring this up now because of this horrifying story that I read this morning. The very suggestion that such a thing might be done will have a massively chilling effect on participation in publicly archived discussions. Blogging is already hard enough knowing that everything I say is really part of my permanent record without imagining that it will be data-mined to discover all sorts of things about me that I didn't want to share in the first place!

We talk a lot about free speech in the western world, and take very seriously any possibility that government might limit that speech. But I think we don't take seriously enough threats to our free speech from public sector. Knowing that we can't get arrested for stuff we say online isn't terribly useful if that same stuff can make us unemployable.

So, I'd like to see some kind of legal framework that would prevent employers from discriminating against prospective hires based on things they've said. Such a framework wouldn't be completely unprecedented - there are already several pieces of information that are technically available to employers which they can't use in employment decisions. I propose that we just expand that to make "stuff you've said" a protected class. Naturally, that would also make it illegal to fire someone over something that they said (though exceptions would probably have to be made for things directly related to their job - it should still be possible to fire someone for violating an NDA, for example).

Companies don't like to have employees who say terrible things on the internet, because it reflects badly on them (and their hiring practices). But it only does so because they have the power to do something about employees who say terrible things on the internet. If they didn't have that power, they can just say "it's not work related - it's nothing to do with us". Essentially, because it's not prohibited it's essentially compulsory. So companies ought to be clamouring for this legislation - it would ensure they could concentrate on their core business and not have to go googling for dirt on their employees. It would also mean that they could choose the best person for the job without having to take into account stuff that fundamentally doesn't matter to them. And it would make it less likely that they would be left short-handed due to an ill-advised comment.

One Response to “A new protected class: things you've said”

  1. VileR says:

    Prospects like this are exactly why I've been trying to resist the de-anonymization of the internet since forever... or at least trying to keep my real-life identity from being linked to whatever random stuff I do or say online; not that I have anything to hide - merely as a precaution. Though I could be far more diligent about it than I actually am, and the lines naturally tend to blur. Being anonymous was a matter of course in the BBS era and in a lot of corners of the early internet, but these days some people look at you funny if you insist on it.

    And that's where it could become a double-edged sword: in an era when the "normal" thing to do is having every single detail and moment of your personal life plastered across the entire public internet, potential employers might find the [i]lack[/i] of such data alarming in itself. As the insidious fallacy goes, "why protect your privacy if you have nothing to hide - why be discreet if you've done nothing wrong?", a mentality that instantly makes the whole thing a losing game.

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