A frenzy arose recently when the Associated Press reported some hiring companies were asking potential job candidates for their Facebook passwords. While the practice is not nearly as widespread as the news story originally suggested, the idea of such an invasion of privacy hit a strong nerve and sparked a national discussion. Maryland was quick to pass legislation prohibiting employers from asking to access an applicant’s social media profiles, and other states have proposed similar legislation.

So where should the line be drawn? If asking job applicants for Facebook passwords is taboo, can you Google them? If sending friend requests is too forward, can you connect with applicants via LinkedIn?

There are no correct answers because there are no concrete rules, but before you take to the Net to investigate your next new hire, ask yourself a few questions.

What’s to gain?

What do you want to learn by investigating a job applicant online? Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws dictate that companies make hiring decisions based on job-related information only. While a basic Google search is unlikely to provide much job-related data, it could easily divulge information that puts an applicant in a protected class — their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetics. Certainly, some of the same information would be disclosed during an interview, but what if after reviewing one candidate’s lackluster resume, you decide interviewing him or her would be a waste of time?

However, out of curiosity, you Google the applicant anyway and learn she’s an African-American woman in her late 50s. Now there is the potential taint of discrimination attached to your decision not to interview her.

Can you handle the truth?

What will you do with the information you discover? Remember the famous courtroom scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” in which Jack Nicholson’s character screams, “You can’t handle the truth!” Can you handle the truth? Are you ready for what you might learn about a job applicant online?

What if through connecting with your top candidate on a social networking site, you come across a fundraising campaign for his child with muscular dystrophy? You might assume if you hire him, your company’s health insurance premiums would increase or that he would be unable to fully commit to the job with a special needs child at home.

What if you discover the young go-getter you are about to hire as an executive assistant has been moonlighting at a questionable nightclub? You can’t unlearn facts once you’ve learned them, so can you trust yourself to make a completely unbiased hiring decision?

Can you be certain that what you find is a current and accurate representation of the candidate?

Protection concerns

If your parents were right and you’re judged by the company you keep, for better or worse a company is also judged by the people it employs. In this age of rampant online recklessness, it’s understandable that employers would want to protect their company’s reputation from the damage even just one employee’s careless indiscretion could cause.

Remember the Domino’s Pizza incident when two employees posted a video of themselves sabotaging a submarine sandwich? Personal posts could be a red flag that the candidate you are about to hire doesn’t always display the best judgment.

But how can you be sure those party pics you found tagging your star candidate were posted with her knowledge or are not from 10 years ago when she was still a college coed?

Social media offers companies an alluring platform to connect with their audiences, whether that’s customers, employees or even prospective employees. But company representatives need to use discretion if they intend to access social media or any online tools in the hiring process. Some well-intended prying could be deemed discriminatory or lead you to pass up a potential star.

Poor judgment, whether it is on the part of an individual or part of a company practice, will always carry negative consequences.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based human resources and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.

Published in Houston