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Hiring in the Age of Social Media

In the light of new technology, we live in an age where nothing is official until it has been “tweeted”, “shared”, “pinned”, “posted” or has a hash tag attached to it!

Social media enables individuals to share their personal information over the internet via a “private” profile page.

The intention is that this will be accessed only by trusted acquaintances and friends. However, despite the private intentions of the individuals using these online tools, the extensive uptake of social media, particularly by Generation Y, has lead employers to look at accessing this personal information as part of background checking.

This article explores the ramifications of employers utilising social media as a background checking tool in the context of the entire screening process, how details obtained compare to information that generally forms part of a background check and the legality of using details extracted via this means to make hiring decisions.

What is “social media”?

Social media refers to the online interaction between people in which individuals have the opportunity to be part of a virtual community dedicated to creating, sharing and exchanging information and ideas. Social media includes applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Google Plus+, YouTube plus many more.

Although the intended market differs, the use of social media revolves around the creation of a personal profile in order to build an online friend/family/work colleague social network. This gives individuals the freedom to post, share and express personal opinions and stories (not to mention revealing personal details), and this is the basis of its appeal in our ever-increasing online world.

Social media in background checking is a hot topic!

Thanks to developments in technology, employers in the 21st century are well aware that social media has the potential to contain details that may be useful to them in making hiring decisions. Social media is a treasure chest of information that employers will not find on an application or learn about in an interview – it certainly catches the applicant off-guard.

A profile page and postings from Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn can say a thousand words; exposing the individual’s real personality, attitudes and what they do in their spare time. For example, with a few clicks of a mouse, an employer may be able to see the candidate ‘partying’ at every chance or the way they comment on their attitude to work in their profile postings.

Recently, hundreds of articles have been circulated in the media debating the use of social media as part of background checking and highlighting the risks involved. With social media being a culmination of the world’s embrace of the Internet, it is a topic that is surely here for a long ride, as ethics and legalities vs benefits are explored.

“Face”(book) the Facts

According to HC Online’s article ‘Rethinking your social media policy’ the average Australian spends close to 22 hours on social media each week. That is half as much time as they spend at work during a week! You can see why employers recognise social media as an opportunity to find out more about their applicants!

Mondaq’s article ‘Australia: Social media and the workplace’ claims that in 2011, 91% of US recruiters surveyed admitted to using social media sites to screen applicants. However, US PI Profits Career Builder’s 2012 survey of 2,303 hiring managers revealed that 37% of companies turn to social media as a screening tool; however, that this percentage is actually down from 45% since 2009. This could be an indication that employers are starting to see the risks involved with delving into their candidates’ private lives.

Workplace Info article ‘Facebook Not Good Predictor of Suitable Employees’ discusses a US study entitled ‘Big five personality traits reflected in job applicant’s social media postings’ conducted by North Carolina State University.

This study identified 175 personality traits that were considered advantageous in the workplace. Facebook posts were then analysed to assess whether this form of social media provided any reliable indication of whether candidates possessed these personality traits, based on the content of the candidate’s posts. The study revealed:

 Employers who rejected applicants due to revealing “bad behaviour” (e.g. drug and alcohol use) on their Facebook profile were overlooking potentially good employees; and
 Results that suggested behaviour outside of work and social activity that was potentially damaging to a candidate did not necessarily translate to inappropriate behaviour within the workplace, nor did it reflect badly on the employer.

“Tweeting” the legal ramifications of self-serve social media screening

Through online search engines and social networks, organisations throughout the world have facilitated the provision of easy-to-access information and have changed the modern world. However, the laws regulating fairness in hiring practices have not changed to support access of all information in the way it has the potential to be used.

With sensitive information readily available, employers must proceed with caution if considering social media as a background checking tool. Privacy and discrimination laws remain strong and using social media to expose additional information about a potential employee that was not either voluntarily offered by the candidate at application or interview stage or obtained via traditional background checking means can be somewhat of a legal minefield.

Possessing too much information about a potential employee can be dangerous. Viewing a Facebook profile that reveals pieces of information about a candidate that is off-limits in an interview (such as sexual orientation, age, religion, political stance, disability or pregnancy) can add fuel to fire encouraging a discrimination claim.

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