online private eye?
September 26, 2021 6:13 AM   Subscribe

I know that two people have a longstanding (25 years) relationship that was not declared when one of them was promoted to a senior job that the other created for them and arranged the appointment. This is potentially illegal and might go to a tribunal due to abuse of process. A quick online search for their names doesn't reveal much, perhaps one or two documents. My question is, is it possible to hire someone to dig deeper into their online presence to find strong proof of their relationship?

I wonder if there are people who specialise in finding information online in a way that goes beyond what I can find with my limited knowledge of social media platforms and search engines? TV series such as 'The Good Wife' suggest that it is possible to discover a lot about someone from online materials, but my attempts don't reveal much. Both people in question gave some thought to hiding their relationship online. One of them has a FB profile that is entirely private; the other keeps it for professional use only. Google search reveals one picture of them together and evidence that they have been running a non-profit jointly since 1998. I would like to hire someone to try and find more details that can strengthen the claim of abuse of process. Do you know who might be able to do this kind of investigative work? Thank you, hive mind.
posted by slimeline to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you need to review the answers to your previous question.
posted by sagc at 7:38 AM on September 26, 2021 [31 favorites]

A trade industry journalist is who I would think of! Also, Bellingcat has a good list of open source intelligence resources and techniques. Good luck!
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 8:41 AM on September 26, 2021

Other than throwing a wrench into other peoples' careers, what good is this going to do anybody? The situation from your previous post really sounds unfortunate, but do you really want to try to hire an investigator just to turn up "yes, these people had a pre-existing relationship and here's receipts about it"?

From the previous post, it sounds like the hiring process wasn't followed and that should be enough for the institution to take action or not. While what you described sounds shitty, hiring someone to dig into their relationship sounds even shittier.
posted by jzb at 8:52 AM on September 26, 2021 [13 favorites]

Unless you work for the government, two people in a relationship working together - even in a manager subordinate relationship - is not illegal. In fact it's relatively common for family businesses.
posted by saeculorum at 9:13 AM on September 26, 2021 [7 favorites]

This won't go the way you hope it will and will likely sour opportunities for future employment. I'd do my best to put it behind me and look for a new job.
posted by mikesch at 9:22 AM on September 26, 2021 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the responses so far. To clarify. This question is a follow up to my previous one.
After speaking with a trade union rep I learned that something similar did happen in the past and went to a tribunal where it was determined that because the previous relationship between the appointee and the manager was not declared during the hiring process, the claimant was entitled to compensation.
posted by slimeline at 9:26 AM on September 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Then make a complaint to the relevant people, and let them do the investigating. If nothing else, someone who is basing their ideas about what can be done off of The Good Wife is not the right person to be doing this on behalf of the company.

What did your union rep say when you said you wanted to file a grievance? Why do you think that this is your job to do on your own?
posted by sagc at 9:45 AM on September 26, 2021 [14 favorites]

People, if you're not in the same country as OP your gut feelings about how this works might not be helpful.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:57 AM on September 26, 2021 [7 favorites]

Did you ask the trade union rep about YOUR specific situation? Did the union rep explain to you how this actually works? Because hiring someone to dig into people's lives based on "something similar" happening in the past sounds like an easy way to accomplish little more than lightening your wallet, if you don't have a good sense of what you are trying to accomplish. (This would also potentially inform what kind of professional would be best suited for the task, if it is actually appropriate for you to be involved in that way.)
posted by sm1tten at 12:08 PM on September 26, 2021

Both people in question gave some thought to hiding their relationship online. One of them has a FB profile that is entirely private; the other keeps it for professional use only.

That second sentence is not evidence for the first being true, and if someone came to me in a professional capacity and suggested it was I’d be very hard pressed to not write them off as a crank.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 12:18 PM on September 26, 2021 [13 favorites]

You people... do you want to live in a fair world where laws and rules work, and people are able to make their own judgments about when they are able to step up and make an extra effort, or not? Arg.

OP - First, hey, that user ID is eponysterical, but I'm not going to judge you for it :)

Second - I think that any good private investigator will use social media and other avenues. It also sounds like you've done some looking around easily accessible web information, so other avenues might be helpful. I'd just look for a "good private investigator", and let that person tell you what they can do. Actually, call at least three, and take good notes on what they tell you.

Third - I should have put this first - If you can compile what you do know, and if there is possible compensation, you might just want to try getting in touch with a good employment lawyer (call three). They can tell you the best way to proceed. You don't want to break any laws yourself, and you want to follow a process that will make sense to a judge/jury/whoever decides this case.

Also, really reputable lawyers will probably be able to give you good references for a private investigator that gets good results, and who knows the rules and laws and resources in your area.

It's very likely that you can have an initial conversation with a lawyer (or three) without paying them. See what they say -- they will know a LOT more than I do.

Finally - there will be people who try to discourage you because they don't know you, they don't know how you feel, they don't know how big of a difference this makes in your life, they know less than nothing about your actual situation (nothing == blank slate; assumptions based on totally different contexts and experiences == less than that), and they are so busy and overwhelmed and have so much to lose, themselves, that they can't possibly imagine what could justify taking any risk at all, or spending any time at all on this.

There may be a good argument against your pursuing this, but nobody here knows the circumstances well enough to make such an argument.

Good luck to you.
posted by amtho at 12:20 PM on September 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The point above about filing a complaint, if you believe you have grounds, and letting the process take its course is a good one. If you are deemed to have grounds, the tribunal or body that receives the complaint will investigate. You will be protected not only from costs, but also from doing anything that could constitute harassment against the targets of the investigation.

If you choose not to go this route, hiring a reputable private investigator is probably the best way to proceed. You might be able to find such a person through employment law firms in your jurisdiction, who also often use such services.

I understand your need to see justice done, but as others have noted, you would be wise to tread carefully. The risk of ending up on the wrong end of a complaint yourself, or simply being labelled a crank, are real, and could do permanent damage to your career, finances, and credibility.
posted by rpfields at 2:34 PM on September 26, 2021 [11 favorites]

This is unprofessional behavior on your part and will reflect very badly on you. And if one of these people is a woman and you’re planning to imply that she essentially slept her way into the position, well that’s obviously more than unprofessional. Hiring a private investigator to spy and dig up private dirt on work colleagues is harassment, pure and simple. I’d really consider if that’s how you want to portray yourself, especially since you mention that it’s not so easy to find other growth opportunities in your field.
posted by asimplemouse at 2:51 PM on September 26, 2021 [10 favorites]

It sounds like what you want to do is blow the whistle. This book has information that might help you think through who'd be a good partner to help you gather and pass on relevant information safely.
posted by limeonaire at 3:08 PM on September 26, 2021

Part of my concern for you would be that a formal investigative body might or might not find evidence that you bought yourself to be persuasive, but in the process of getting that evidence, you might tip off the people you are so concerned with to tighten up their security. Then when the investigative body wants to do its own impartial information-gathering, they won't be able to do so. I investigate claims of misconduct professionally on occasion, though not this kind of misconduct, and this is a real concern. Especially if the behavior you're concerned about is recent, getting it to the appropriate investigative authorities ASAP can be really critical for giving them the best opportunity to gather the information they need with the power they have to do so, which may well outstrip yours.

Of course, that depends heavily on whether you actually trust that the investigative body in question would act fairly and impartially. If you think they would not, then you might need to go ahead and gather as much evidence as you can to force them to take you seriously. If that's the case, then you're headed into a potentially adversarial situation, you may or may not be thinking clearly about it, you don't have a particularly firm idea of what you can and can't do, and talking to a lawyer before you do anything else might be a good idea.
posted by Stacey at 3:32 PM on September 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Even if the OP is the whistleblower and starts off the investigation, even if the tribunal finds against their boss, even if everything falls in the OPs favour..the odds of it ending up with the OP being handed the plum role they want on a platter now that the competition have been fired is pretty low.

For a start, it’s just a really bad look for the company. You dob in someone who took a role you wanted, spearhead an investigation and then get handed their role? Then what, everyone claps? That only happens in the movies.

If this goes to a tribunal and these people are found out, what’s most likely to happen is that the stink of the illegal debacle will cling to anyone involved with it, including the whistleblower. The company will avoid any links with the whole thing going forward, trying to put it behind them and just start afresh, hiring from the outside. You’ll be tainted just by association.

I mean, if all you want is justice/revenge then yeah I guess you can progress with it. But if your end goal is the job you felt you were denied, I’d tread really carefully. You’re better off waiting for the new hire to screw up because they can’t do their job and then step in to be the hero, than be tarred with spearheading their downfall.
posted by Jubey at 12:50 AM on September 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don’t care what country you’re in, reading your last question makes it really clear you’re motivated by a desire for revenge and out of resentment and a long-held grudge that you were passed over for a job. If it’s really illegal or against policy report it in plain language to whoever the equivalent is of your Human Resources department or union shop steward and walk far away. It sounds like you’re in an academia-adjacent line of work and are shocked — shocked! — to find favoritism played a role in you losing out on a gig. But a pre-existing relationship is not a priori evidence of favoritism, and people not making their private relationship public isn’t proof that they are scheming to hide something.

I’m with the contrarians here saying this sounds as toxic for you as it will ever be for them. You have a PhD. You don’t work in a factory. Your profession is almost certainly a small world full of pre-existing personal relationships mixed with professional ones and getting a reputation as vengeful and angry could entail real blowback in professional academic and academia-adjacent settings I know well.

Among other things taking it on yourself to do an “investigation” might well make YOU the one liable for harassment.
posted by spitbull at 4:17 AM on September 27, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: From my experience in academia, there is almost zero chance that anyone even tangentially involved in this situation is unaware of the broad outlines of that relationship, and no amount of added information is going to make them want to act differently. People talk about knowing where the bodies are buried in a workplace, and that's what's operative here. The last thing anyone wants is for someone to heave those bodies into the light. They want them there when it comes time to invoke them, i.e. to perform some similarly underhanded action for their own benefit.

I think someone suggested on your last post that you can still call in favors and that whatever relationship you have with this boss is still there. That's probably true. Use it to get out, if that's what you want.

For what it's worth, I do find this kind of inside job thing incredibly annoying and toxic-- especially in academia, where the prospects for moving can be so limited-- so I see where you are coming from. I just think you should cut your losses here.
posted by BibiRose at 8:41 AM on September 27, 2021

OR there are a lot of people who are bothered by this, but nobody is willing to stick their neck out to prove it solidly enough for action to be taken.

Nobody is asking anybody to go risk their life on a battlefield in the name of justice or fairness. But people have done so anyway. This time, the risk is much smaller.
posted by amtho at 11:24 AM on September 27, 2021

I don’t care what country you’re in,

The relevant employment tribunal and/or workplace policies and/or employment protections probably care. Being in the US doesn't make you competent to make gut-level guesses about the outcomes of various investigations in completely different countries.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:03 PM on September 27, 2021

To answer the question as asked: yes, people can do this. They might be called private investigators, or terms of art might be online investigations or OSINT (Open Source Intelligence, where open source means 'publicly available', not open source in the software sense). There are plenty of OSINT resources online; Bellingcat as mentioned above is one.

As to whether you should do anything about this, I tend to agree with others that it might not be a great idea.
posted by Pink Frost at 3:40 PM on September 27, 2021

To clarify, I did suggest reporting any clear violation of relevant legal and policy guidelines apply, if you so desire. I’m saying “don’t investigate yourself.

The country-independent thing is that a professional field where workers have PHDs is typically a small and personal world, not a shop floor at a giant corporation with a strong union. The framework of employment law applies of course, but so do generalizable aspects of human psychology and group behavior.
posted by spitbull at 4:32 PM on September 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

The country-independent thing is that a professional field where workers have PHDs is typically a small and personal world, not a shop floor at a giant corporation with a strong union.

The association of unions with shop floors is very US specific, and the arrogance of assuming that being a US academic tells you much about the culture in other heavy PhD fields in other countries (engineering; medical research; social work; I could go on) is pretty intense.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:02 PM on September 29, 2021

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