Monday, April 5, 2010

Risky Recruiting with Social Media

As a candidate for a position with XYZ Corporation, I would be foolish not to use all the social media tools at my disposal to draw a complete company picture. Using a variety of networks, I would try to determine XYZ’s online reputation; I’d research its products and its culture; I’d look for stories from current and former employees; and I’d look for a social media presence that was compatible with what I already knew.

Of course, the hiring authority at XYZ would be equally foolish not to check me out on every available network. In fact, one could argue—if not yet, then soon—that the company who didn’t scour the Internet for every tidbit about a potential new hire was being negligent.

It’s too soon to tell, but this scenario has been suggested as one of the real threats social media has introduced into human resources and the employment life cycle. Another possibly more serious threat is the charge of discriminatory hiring practices, stemming from the use of information that employers find on social media networks—information that would not/should not have come out during a typical interview. Ethical hiring managers are careful to avoid asking interview questions about religion, sexual orientation and the like; but what is the correct response when they find pictures or texts of such privileged information on a networking site?

On paper, that answer is easy: ignore the contraband and continue evaluating the candidate for all the right (i.e., job-related) reasons. In reality, however, those cards have already been played, and you can bet that even the most conscientious among us would find some job-related insufficiency to weed out candidates that didn’t meet our surreptitious criteria. Assuming that we were able to rise above such behavior, proving that we did so would present an exceptional challenge.

Renee Jackson, an associate with the law firm of Nixon Peabody, wrote about these risks in a January article for the National Law Journal. She warned that “employers must address their use and misuse [of social media] before, during and after an employee’s tenure.” She confirms that employers may face liability for using information learned about a candidate from a social media site. Protected class status—race, age, disability, religion, etc.—are off limits and cannot be considered in hiring decisions. She echoed what I’ve read in other places: that it would be hard for an employer to prove that it viewed, but did not use, the information from a social network.

Jackson also lists some information employers can lawfully use in their decision-making. Illegal drug use, poor work ethic, poor writing or communication skills, feelings about previous employers and racist or other discriminatory tendencies that may be revealed online are fair game. And, in a tongue-in-cheek warning to applicants, she reminds us that employers may “lawfully consider an applicant’s general poor judgment in maintenance of his or her public online persona.”

As social media permeates the workplace, greater access to information brings opportunities and risks for employers and employees. Essentially, both parties have to be alert and weigh the benefits against the risks of using social media-both on and off the job.


  1. This phenomenon is actually an old battle being fought in a new arena. I don't want to taint the young and idealistic members of our group, but it has been my experience in the corporate world that employers begin the process of discharging an employee almost before the hiring process is completed.

    This methodology is called the documentation process, and it is based on the premise that if there are enough pieces of paper in a given employee's file, at least one of them will come in handy should it become necessary to discharge said employee.

    It is a small jump from terminating an employee to not hiring that person in the first place. And the larger the quantity of iffy information floating around, the more likely it will be that some of it will pop up at an inopportune moment. If you wouldn't want your mama to read it or see it, then don't put it on the internet.

  2. My motto has always been, “Think before you speak.” Now it’s, “Think before you post.”

    Though I believe it to be unfair of employers to use information found on social networking sites as part of the hiring process, potential employees when posting online should take caution.

    Raymond, you make a good point. Not too long ago I witnessed my friend get fired for something she did two months prior to her termination. At the time of the incident the manager assured her that all she had to worry about was a verbal warning. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all she had to worry about.

  3. Lydie, I agree that people have to think before they speak and before they post. It is imperative that you are aware of your reputation on social networking sites. I usually do things that would not disappoint my parents. The same thing goes for my employer because you are representing the company and I would not want to disappoint them as well.

  4. This once again reinforces why I'm so happy to be an independent and could never, ever go back to working for The Man. If I play my cards right, this is something I'll never, ever have to worry about ever again. Yahoo! (Now, the closest thing an independent has to bosses are her clients, but luckily we don't have that controlling, Big Brother relationship that can become so restrictive.)

    But the real point of my post is to point you to I believe we talked about the site earlier, but its a great place to find out how much people make in certain positions at certain companies, what the hiring process is like, why people left, and other vital information when researching a company.

  5. I found this quote interesting: "employers may 'lawfully consider an applicant’s general poor judgment in maintenance of his or her public online persona.'”

    I think everyone (esp. job applicants) should be aware of their online footprint. Take time to Google your name (if it's not a common name like John Smith) and see what comes up. Be aware of what people can search for and find out about you online. Most people would be surprised at how much can be found by an intrepid HR staffer.

  6. For me, it's better to find via sosial media and then meet to some inteview offline. Somehow, we know some one from first meeting ;)