Facebook’s new newsfeed may leave you searching for friend updates, but the platform remains a veritable treasure trove of data on job applicants. But many employers are increasingly hesitant to use social media to research job applicants; a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management showed just 22 percent of employers looked up candidates on social media, down from 34 percent five years earlier. When asked why they did not use social media sites for candidate screening, 74 percent said they worried about the legal risks.
There’s certainly cause for concern. Federal and state statutes make it illegal to make hiring decisions on certain characteristics like race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or disability status. An employer who looks at a candidate’s social media profile early in the screening process may become aware of facts about the candidate that may not be evident in an interview, like the candidate’s sexual orientation, religion or disability. If the applicant is later eliminated from consideration, he or she may argue it was because of discrimination, thus opening the employer up to potential legal consequences.
Though there are risks associated with using social media in the screening process, savvy employers can use an applicant’s social media profile as an extension of the candidate’s resume. A resume offers a relatively narrow view of a candidate—detailing only their skills and experiences. In contrast, social channels can show his or her actual work: Facebook and Twitter allow for links to publications, and LinkedIn shows recommendations, endorsements, SlideShare presentations and more.
Even candidates who use social media purely for social reasons can still give employers an idea of their voice, judgment and professionalism – the same skills that are important to any job function. This is particularly true if social media in business is necessary for the job, as is the case in marketing, customer service and forward-facing positions.
To maximize the benefits of social media screening – and minimize the risks – follow these tips:
- As always, start with policy. Create a written social media screening policy that outlines how the company will carry out the search and who will conduct the screening. A standard policy should clarify which websites the company will screen, how the sites will be searched and the type of information that will be evaluated. For example, it’s entirely appropriate to scan social media sites for negative statements about a previous employer, threatened violence, unlawful activity, or discriminatory or hateful statements.
- Make it consistent. Use social media screening to evaluate all candidates or none. Sporadic searching can look like the company went looking for a reason to eliminate an otherwise qualified candidate.
- Stay above board. Look at what the candidate has made publicly available. Don’t make a phantom friend request or try to get around privacy settings. Don’t ask for passwords or access to accounts; in some states, like Washington, this is illegal.
- Remember timing is everything. Use social media screening only as a true background check, after a contingent offer has been extended. By that point, it’s likely that the candidate’s membership in a protected group is already known.
- Make a paper trail. If you do eliminate any candidate from consideration because of social media content, print out the page containing the offending material and record the reason for rejection. This protects the employer in case the post is deleted or altered.
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