Carol Howard Merritt: Search committees and Google

What happens if someone on a search committee Googles the name of a candidate who has been attacked by a vicious blogger?

I keep my CV updated. People often need it to introduce me for conferences. The strange thing is, in this era of shared information, I often do not know where my work has been published. My mother recently let me know that I had an article in an Assemblies of God journal. I had no idea. The viral nature of our information is the magical part of the web. But there are difficult things about it too.

I have friends who make sure that they are on top of each time someone is talking about them on the Internet. I’m not so vigilant. I usually run into stuff by accident, and recently there has been some rather strange things popping up. A “heresy hunter” has been trolling my information. He finds it offensive that I am a woman minister, so he writes unflattering portrayals of my work, peppered with name-calling. The site looks legitimate, and the blogger maintains that he is the pastor of a church, but when you try to look up the congregation, it’s actually a Chinese Restaurant. As a writer, I shrug and think, Any publicity is good publicity. But as a pastor, I’m not so sure. As church leaders, what we do hinges on our reputation.

This experience has made me wonder: what happens if someone on a search committee Googles the name of a candidate who has been attacked by a vicious blogger? How much will that weigh on the committee’s decision? We can usually control what sort of information we put on the Internet about ourselves, but we cannot control what people say about us. We also have very little legal recourse in these situations (to dig deeper, see Daniel Solove).

How do we lead religious institutions in the Google generation? There are a few possibilities.

First, religious leaders can severely limit their web interactions. Some people have decided that it is too dangerous for one’s reputation to get in the mud of social media. If they do interact, then it’s all business. I respect this decision, but I also think that social media presents incredible opportunities for us to connect with people in authentic and creative ways. I would hate to miss out on that because I’m a pastor. In fact, it seems that I should be involved because I’m a pastor.

Second, we can encourage no-Google policies in our job searches. This is something that Daniel Solove condones, but I’m afraid it is not possible. When an employer is trying to gain as much information about a candidate’s character as possible, then I’m not sure that they can ignore such an important research tool. And even if the search committee did maintain a no-Google policy, the people in the institution or pew will be looking up the name on search engines.

Third, we can fully engage, realizing that every word we say could be public information. There are things about me on the Internet that I wish were not there, but when something arises that could taint my reputation, then I hope that more Internet usage will drown out the negative information.

There are things that we can do as we sort through these confusing issues. When we hire for a position, we can understand the differences that might arise with the “Google generation.” If we find something unflattering, we might want to talk to the candidate about it, rather than dismissing that candidate quickly. We can also begin using this as a source of intergenerational understanding, and discuss how different people use the Internet. The tools of social media and the Internet cannot be ignored, but we can be wiser as we use them.

What sort of hiring practices does your organization use, pertaining search engines? Do you do anything in particular to protect your reputation on the Internet? Do you find social media to be helpful for religious leaders?