On a Tuesday afternoon in February, The New York Times proudly announced it had hired journalist Quinn Norton, a “lead opinion writer on the power, culture and consequences of technology.” A blog post by Norton soon followed. She said those who had interviewed her “made it clear that they weren’t going to get put off by a little weird.” Yet, just seven hours after the Times’ announcement, she was fired. In the intervening time, twitter users had resurfaced old tweets in which Norton had used derogatory terms for African Americans and gay people. And, she had proudly acknowledged her friendship with well-known neo-Nazis, though she claimed she “never agreed with them.” The Times promptly issued a second announcement that she had been fired: “Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us. Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.”
Prescreening an applicant’s social media can raise questions of legality and job-relatedness. And, many companies who do not prescreen cite concerns about legal risks related to discovering information about an applicant’s protected characteristics or using discovered information that is not job-relevant. More importantly, the ability to prescreen is limited when applicants or employees make their accounts private and state laws prevent the employer from requesting the username and password. Since 2012, twenty-six states have enacted laws that prohibit employers from requiring access to employees’ social media accounts. New York is not one of them. (Neither is Florida.) Regardless, Norton’s tweets were public. While The New York Times apparently did not discover them through prescreening, they were certainly job-relevant to this high-profile technology hire.