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Knowledge@Australian School of Business

Screening Job Candidates on Facebook: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

Published: June 11, 2012 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business
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When screening job candidates, these days it's common practice for employers to learn more about a prospective employee via a cursory Google search or simply by typing their name into Facebook. The practice may not be condoned by the employer organisation, but – in the quest for greater insights – it's certainly difficult to resist.

Controversy has been generated by the recent push by companies asking job applicants for direct access to their Facebook profiles, including user names and passwords. Such invasive tactics have brought the role of social media in vetting of candidates under scrutiny. While they may be rare, it's true that employers, tempted by the ease of access to information, increasingly are using social media to screen candidates in less formal ways.

Informal screening of candidates using social media may seem harmless, but it may also trigger privacy and discrimination issues resulting in legal action if the candidate is not hired because of information or impressions gleaned via social media.

Recruiters and human resources managers should keep anti-discrimination laws in mind when conducting social media screening. "It's unlawful to hire or not hire someone based on age, marital status or sexuality – all factors that candidates do not need to reveal when applying for jobs, but that could possibly be gleaned from Facebook or other networks," says Mariah Gillespie, social media manager at JXT Consulting, which specialises in social recruiting strategies.

Making snapshot decisions based on candidates' social media profiles is bad hiring practice. "You would not use it as a core part of decision-making," emphasises Judith MacCormick, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian School of Business and partner in the CEO & Board Practice at executive search and leadership consulting firm, Heidrick & Struggles. She advises more thorough research to assess experience, capabilities and reputations, including: "Talking to people and networks of people who know (a candidate' s) performance in real circumstances; looking at competence in what they have actually done in their work lives."

Experts insist employers and jobseekers should proceed with caution when using social media. Given the easy access, employers need to establish clear guidelines for social media use and candidate screening to minimise legal risks and potentially disastrous hiring decisions. At the same time, job seekers must be proactive in protecting themselves and their reputations by thinking twice about what they post and editing their social media profiles. "It's up to candidates these days to really make sure their online profiles are appropriate," says Gillespie, a communications graduate from the University of New South Wales.

Gauging the extent of social media use to vet candidates is difficult. In the US, a survey by social media monitoring service Reppler found that 91% of recruiters used social networking sites to screen job applicants. In Australia, research by Telstra found a quarter of Australian employers use social networking sites to screen job candidates. Half of those surveyed by the telecommunications giant admitted they had turned down a potential employee because of content seen on Facebook or Twitter. There was an upside though – a third of employers who participated in the research had hired staff due to positive impressions gleaned from social networks.

Counting on First Impressions

Reports on how extensively employers rely on social network profiles for first impressions vary. "I understand it's relatively common now for employers to search social media when they are considering candidates," says Bronwyn Maynard, senior associate at law firm Henry Davis York. But Shane Little, NSW regional director at recruitment firm HAYS, says it' s not widespread. "We place people into all sorts of organisations at all different levels and all different walks of life, but I can' t recall a situation in the last three months where one of our applications has been rejected as a result of information on social media, in particular Facebook," he says.

Big companies insist screening by social media is not formally part of hiring modus operandi. "Coca-Cola Amatil doesn' t use social media profiles in our recruitment process," asserts Sally Loane, CCA' s director of media and public affairs.

An insider at a major financial institution, who declined to be named, suggests social media use as part of hiring processes is more informal or may involve third parties. "We have a policy governing the use of social media in the workplace and I don't believe we use social media profiles to screen job candidates, but we do use an external firm for the usual security checks of police records et cetera … Outside of HR, I suspect everyone interviewing for a role will probably Google a candidate' s name or check their LinkedIn profile anyway."

Gillespie, who helps recruiters and HR managers develop social media strategies, says Internet screening is more of a secondary step for most of her clients. "It' s not a viable recruitment or sourcing tool. Ultimately, you still have to meet the person face-to-face in order to assess them," she says. Those screening through social networks are often trying to assess whether the applicant will be a good cultural fit – and to see what they do on weekends. Gillespie points out "Whether or not a person is social might indicate whether they will fit well into the company's social environment."

However, evidence is growing that social networking sites can be helpful tools in the recruitment process. A study by US management academics Donald Kluemper, Peter Rosen and Kevin Mossholder, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, found social networking sites provided accurate representations of a candidate' s personality. The paper, Social Networking Websites, Personality Ratings, and the Organizational Context: More Than Meets the Eye?,reported that ratings of personality traits on social networking sites were "as accurate as ratings made by individuals who have detailed knowledge of the [people concerned], such as their significant others and close friends".

Gillespie advises clients to look for information on candidates. "If they ask, I encourage them to use social media for screening," she says. She also warns them of legal issues that may result. Management expert Kluempler is more hesitant. He told Knowledge@Wharton that he does not recommend companies rely on social networking profiles "until a method is validated in a number of ways, including a study of adverse impacts and the legal issues".

Henry Davis York's Maynard pinpoints the potential legal issues that may arise from using social networks to screen possible hires in the areas of discrimination and privacy. State and federal discrimination laws mean an employer cannot refuse to hire on the basis of race, sex or disability – information that could readily be disclosed and accessed on social networking sites.

Consider the Risks

A major risk for employers is exposure to an "adverse action" claim under the Fair Work Act. Legal action can be brought when a company refuses to employ a candidate due to particular "unlawful" reasons, including a previous workers compensation claim or more general grounds such as race, sex, disability or pregnancy. "If an employer looks at social media sites or Facebook pages and sees information about an employee which falls within one of those 'unlawful' grounds, a candidate who is refused a job may form the view that the reason they were not hired was because the employer became aware of that information," Maynard says.

An employer might see an announcement on Facebook that a candidate is pregnant. If not hired, the candidate may commence an adverse action claim asserting that pregnancy was the reason. There is a reverse onus in such claims: it is presumed that the employer made the decision for the unlawful reason, unless the employer proves otherwise.

Asking jobseekers for Facebook log-in details puts employers on particularly shaky legal ground. Under the Act an organisation must only collect personal information if it is "necessary" in the circumstances. "What's 'necessary' is not defined in the legislation, but will depend on the purpose for which the information is being collected," Maynard notes. In the context of an employment decision, 'necessary' information includes information such as skills, capabilities and qualifications, she adds.

Maynard says asking a job candidate for log-in codes to access their Facebook pages is a step too far for employers and she advises against taking it. "It's fraught with challenges and potential legal exposures," she says. "One of those is potential claims for breach of the Privacy Act. Personal information should not be collected unless it's 'necessary' … It would be difficult for an organisation to establish that requiring personal passwords and details of log-in information in order to access personal information on Facebook was necessary, or an appropriate method of collecting personal information, in the circumstances."

There's an argument that companies should actually be scanning social networking sites as a form of due diligence. But it's a grey area that raises big questions, according to MacCormick. "How much does a firm own an individual and their private life and private interactions?" she asks.

Out of Context?

Little also identifies a contextual danger in using information or observations from personal social media sites, in particular Facebook, to source and evaluate candidates. "The majority of (Facebook users) are using it in a personal capacity and don't think of it as something impacting their professional life or their next job," he says.

Professional references are far more useful indicators of their workplace capabilities than the haphazard snapshots compiled over time on social media sites, according to Little. However, he considers professional platforms, such as LinkedIn, play a valid role in sourcing candidates. "Employers and recruiters seeking candidates with experience relative to their needs, use LinkedIn," he says. "Therefore an element of their sourcing and selection process may be based on the quality of a candidate's LinkedIn profile."

Consequently, jobseekers need to ensure their LinkedIn profiles read well, refer to relevant experience and highlight key education and qualifications "so their profile comes up in searches being run by recruitment agencies or employers directly," Little tips.

MacCormick warns that social networking is a public domain so job seekers need to protect themselves. "People have to watch what they're putting out into the social media domain. It's fair game for anyone really. I highly recommend people do a Google search on their own name." Even if a candidate is careful, others can post photos, label them and they then become more widely distributed, MacCormick points out.

Gillespie says most social networking sites, including Facebook, have advanced privacy settings that allow users to control who sees which aspects of their profiles, although Twitter is usually a public profile and open for anyone to see, she notes. She also advises candidates to search to ensure there's nothing online that they "wouldn't want their mum or boss to see".

But employers also need to protect themselves. Maynard says practical steps an employer can take to minimise the risk of legal claims from candidates who did not get the job, include: 

  • Providing training to managers making recruitment decisions so they are aware of what may be lawful and unlawful grounds on which to make hiring decisions;

  • Ensuring managers only collect personal information about candidates that is necessary for recruitment decisions and, where reasonable and practicable, collect that information directly from candidates;

  • Making a record of why a particular candidate was not selected. This will assist an employer in providing evidence, if an adverse action claim is brought, that the hiring decision was not based on an unlawful ground.

As with all new media, there are no clear guidelines; employers and candidates are still working out the ground rules. "There's a whole new dimension of impacts that hasn't existed before," MacCormick says. "These are situations we haven't previously confronted and that we need to work out as a society."

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