What place does social media have in our assessment of potential employees? The temptation to see behind a name is great, to find the “real” person hiding beneath the facade.
Whether we like it or not, all of us are increasingly living out our lives online. As the world around us becomes increasingly driven by digital technology, we find ourselves having to create a digital identity to utilise the services available to us. The downside of this is that we’re all being asked to risk a certain level of privacy when we divulge information about ourselves to third parties.
This debate about what is and isn’t public information has hit the headlines in recent months, with Mark Zuckerberg having to explain how Cambridge Analytica was able to farm the Facebook data of millions of individuals out to corporations and political parties. It’s against this backdrop that we need to examine the use of social media for pre-screening applicants.
As we’ve pointed out previously, there’s no hard and fast overall rule about checking the social media accounts of candidates if they’re publicly visible, but there are a number of legal risks and issues involved. There are certain types of information that can’t be legally considered in a hiring context, and this is the information you’d expect to protect individuals against discrimination – religion, marital status or ethnicity, for example. Moreover, the reality is that you can not unsee what you have seen and this can put you into tricky territory when it comes to hiring.
Because it’s almost impossible to view a Facebook account without gleaning some of this information, simply looking at a Facebook page during pre-screening can leave the process open to legal issues. Even if an employer doesn’t take any of this information into consideration, it’s very difficult to legally prove that certain types of information haven’t affected a particular decision.
Another consideration is the effect that social media screening will have on your employer brand. The war for talent continues unabated, so any hiring practice that potential applicants find abhorrent could have detrimental effects on your ability to find the best people. When an applicant submits their application, and is told their social media profiles could be considered during the screening process, you might find that many applicants simply don’t follow through.
One study asked 175 students to apply for a research position, and then told half of the students that their social media profiles had been screened for professionalism. These students were far more likely to report the selection procedure as being unfair, and found the employing organisation much less attractive. Combining this with other research that indicates that employees who feel they’ve been treated unfairly are much less likely to accept a job offer, and more likely to quit, and we can see why it’s so important not to use practices that create a feeling of unfairness.
LinkedIn profiles provide a happy medium for employers and applicants, as they’re considered publicly available information about an applicant’s employment history and experience. Some application processes even offer the option of using a LinkedIn profile to pre-fill forms. In the professional world, LinkedIn is seen as being the new repository of CVs and resumes.
However, using LinkedIn isn’t a perfect process, as there is still a level of bias that can creep in based on the use of photos and other identifying information on a profile. If an automated pre-screening process can simply crawl a LinkedIn profile to check the accuracy of information provided by an applicant, without considering profile photos, gender, marital status or race, the screening process could be considered a fair and reasonable use of a social media profile.
It’s a brave new world when it comes to data privacy and social media, but that doesn’t mean organisations have any excuse for behaving unethically during the pre-screening process. The best approach is up to each individual organisation, but it should be noted that there are significant downsides for a business using social media for screening, including legal risks and potential damage to your employer brand.