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Lawyers respond to controversial new people-rating site Unvarnished

April 2, 2010 |  9:38 am

New technologies often present Silicon Valley employment lawyers with sticky new legal issues. Unvarnished, the controversial new people review site, is no exception.

So the L.A. Times asked Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati lawyers Fred Alvarez and Kristen Dumont to weigh in.

Alvarez said: "Absolutely it is litigation nightmare. The essential question is, 'Who can I sue?' Obviously, all the principles of defamation apply to things posted anywhere, including the Web. Having to answer for the statements that we make in public has been a pretty good deterrent to making comments that cannot be substantiated. That's not a bad thing. But if the object of 'praise' cannot hold the person accountable in defamation law because they can't find them, then the field is wide open to do and say things that we would not otherwise say and get enormous coverage for the comments. Unvarnished assumed that there is truth under the varnish, but there is no check for that. This is taking 'customer reviews' like we see on lots of sites and personalizing it. I guess people do this sort of stuff 'in private,' but posting it on the Web is the opposite of private."

Dumont, his colleague at Wilson Sonsini, added: "It essentially encourages defamation because it guarantees a forum for venting. If you write something on your personal blog, your comments are less likely to be viewed/disseminated. But this forum is designed, in essence, for taking swipes at folks you don't like. And it's smartly leveraging Facebook's very popular format to do so.

"Also, despite the perils in doing so, many recruiting departments are using Facebook profiles, a person's Tweets, etc., to informally look into a candidate's background. No doubt this will become a go-to destination for recruiters. And human nature being what it is, one well-worded negative review will undo 25 great ones. I think this will have a significant impact on someone's ability to get hired. Unfortunately, the best managers are not always the most popular managers.

"Finally, if this takes off, I think it will start to present challenges for employers. What if the company's recruiters use the site to look into a potential candidate. Let's say he looks decent and they hire him. Later, an anonymous employee posts that another employee regularly makes inappropriate, suggestive comments to female co-workers. Has this triggered their obligation to conduct an investigation into the manager's conduct? Since they used the site once for recruiting (and presumably benefited from it), are they now going to be on the hook for what might be posted later? The standard is that the employer 'knew or should have known.' Does this make it easier to establish the 'should have known' piece?"

-- Jessica Guynn

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