A number of clients have recently asked whether they can “check out” candidates social media prior to the interview?

According to recent surveys, about 50% of employers/managers “check out” applicants and candidates social media during the hiring process. Employers report rejecting job applicants when they find references to inappropriate behavior, drug use, heavy drinking, sexually offensive materials, political rants, etc. Some employers have even started to ask applicants for passwords and log-in information as a part of the process. A number of states have passed legislation prohibiting this and Facebook has weighed in that soliciting passwords violates their code of conduct. The federal government is currently investigating whether practices like these violate federal discrimination and privacy laws.

You might ask, “If a profile is public what is the big deal?”

Great question! You may not be aware of the legal risks that could impact your organization.

An employer who looks at an applicant’s Facebook page or other social media posts may learn information that is not allowed, i.e. ethnicity, origin, pregnancy, age, religious views, etc. This type of information is off limits in the hiring process. If an employer uses this as the basis for a hiring decision it could lead to potential discrimination claims.

The saying a “picture is worth a thousand words” is also true in the realm of social media. You may see a picture and jump to the wrong conclusion without the proper context or back story. A full glass of what appears to be wine could be grape juice; a picture in a questionable room could have been taken in someone else’ home or on a vacation!

Internet search is a double-edged sword as you could learn very positive information by viewing social media. Perhaps the applicant participates in service organizations, discusses their education, etc.

What can an employer do to balance the risk?

• Employers can minimize the legal risks and maximize the business benefits of social media if the screening is part of the reference or background check that is made before extending an offer or after extending a conditional offer. Checking social media after an interview may not reveal much more than already identified.
• HR or Administration should conduct the social media search as they are familiar with the legal landscape and know the information to/not to consider. Casual searches conducted by hiring managers may have an impact on the candidacy or outcome of the interview and should be minimized.
• Train managers regarding the recruiting and interview process in the organization. Clearly communicate and detail who should conduct the social media search and when this will be conducted.

The bottom line… Identify, detail, communicate and manage a recruiting and interviewing process that aligns with the culture of your organization. This process makes an impression on potential candidates, speaks to the ethics of the company and helps protect against potential discrimination and privacy claims.