Social Media Screening: Ethical Violation or Critical Due Diligence?

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3 Simple Steps To Protect Yourself, Your Company, and Your Staff

Should candidates worry about their online personas? Should HR even look?

Should candidates worry about their online personas? Should HR even look?

Recently I was having lunch with a friend, who is a teacher in one of Toronto’s suburbs. She told me a coworker was let go because of their Instagram account, which had photos of her smoking marijuana, among other discretion’s, that were deemed inappropriate. The teacher in question was a recent graduate from teachers college and claimed to be unaware that students could find her private photos.

If staff had conducted a simple social media screening the instagram account in question would have been found before the teacher was hired. At that point she could have been asked to remove the questionable content before having students placed in her care, or if deemed more appropriate, passed over for the position.

The question thus becomes, ethically, should her employer have conducted a search?

The answer is yes. No wait, no – definitely no. Well, maybe…in some cases…hold on, but…

Ok – so its complicated. Lets break it down and start with the facts.

91% of recruiters admit to screening candidates using social media.

I don’t think this is a secret any longer. Every job candidate should assume that prospective (and current) employers will Google their name, but should you use that information in your screening process?

Consider this, if a job candidate aced an interview, but while leaving your office shared information that caused you to question their judgement (thinking of course, that the interview was over) you would certainly include it in your decision.

Public information found online should be considered just like the unintentional disclosure in this case. It was placed in plain sight, while its discovery may not be in the candidates best interest, it would be remiss not to include it.

So what’s the problem?

Expectations of Privacy

Candidates online personas exist behind a complicated web of public and private online networks. Members of those networks have context that outsiders (you) lack. That can easily lead to misinterpretations of information.

How do candidates feel about online screening?

In May this year I delivered a presentation about job hunting in the digital age to students at York University’s Schulich School of Business. One half of the students in the room expressed disbelief that their Facebook photos could hurt them when they looked for work. I was shocked, as I felt this should be common knowledge in today’s digital world. Every student felt strongly that this was an invasion of privacy with no exceptions.

Many students told me they were not concerned – not because they had nothing to hide, but because they would not want to work for an employer that crossed such personal boundaries. Thus, if their online persona cost them the job, they felt better off not working for that company anyways. Interestingly, a study conducted by ZDnet showed that 50% those surveyed would not delete or alter their online photos even if they were aware that recruiters could see them.

Muddy Waters: Access to Protected Information

Another issue with online screening is the amount of information you can be exposed to. Information such as a candidates race, sexuality, political beliefs, and so forth. If your company has a policy of online screening this information could come into play, and it can be difficult to prove it did not influence a decision. You may be open to a human rights violation.

You Need To Screen AND You Need To Respect Privacy

So what should you do and what can you do?

Here are three simple guidelines we have developed based on discussions with HR professionals and legal advisers.

ALWAYS consult your own internal legal team before making any decisions and developing policies. These guidelines can form the basis for starting such discussions.

1. Have an Official Policy for Staff Conduct

It is critical that your staff in HR, managers across your business, and all employees, understand what information is private vs. public and how it could be used. Having an official policy and training staff can help protect your company in the event that an existing employee or prospective one claims that they were discriminated against, passed up for promotion, or wrongfully dismissed because of their online activities. Knowing what is ok and what is not ok to document should be a key part of this policy.

2. Separate Screening and Decision Making

Just as background checks are often contracted outside of the company to prevent decision makers being influenced by irrelevant personal information about candidates, any social media screening should not be conducted by the end decision makers. Any red flags can be raised if they exist, and you will avoid potentially being influenced by protected information.

3. Respect Private Networks

If a candidate has a private Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter account, do not request to be a friend or look for ways around privacy protections. Respect their right to have boundaries.

If you were to send a friend request, follow, or otherwise interact with a candidate who later did not get the job, it would be difficult to prove you did not use information from their personal networks in your decision – even if you did not do so. Better to avoid this risk entirely.

We can not stress enough, the importance of step one in this process. Educating all staff about the importance of their online conduct is important for EVERY company. If you would like assistance with this Talent Formula regularly helps companies draft social media policies and staff trainings that pro-actively train your teams & protect your company.

Have you encountered anyone who was let go because of their online life? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Michael Mahoney
With a background in a multitude of fields from HR, marketing, strategy, and mobile application development, Michael has a unique perspective on how social media is changing business today. Due to his passion for social media, Michael has been featured in HR Professional Magazine and is regularly asked to comment on industry news. Look for Michael’s blog posts about top trends in social media to achieve results in the HR space.

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  • chelsea

    Awesome post Mike & tons of reads in just 24 hours!

    So many recruiters involved with campus recruiting are millennials themselves and thus wouldn’t think twice about using social media to check out candidates. It’s really important for HR Directors/managers to proactively educate their teams on social media uses for screening/reference checking candidates.

    I’m looking forward to more posts on this topic in September from a student’s perspective – what to highlight online & what to lock down!

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