social media word

Social networking sites have revolutionised communication methods in the last decade, both privately and increasingly, at work. As they enter the corporate arena, they are starting to become an integral part of many companies’ recruitment processes. Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn have all taken leading roles in helping businesses to source job candidates and they have proven to be useful tools in promoting business vacancies cost effectively and efficiently.

Social media has so many users and young professionals plugged into its networks that it provides an environment whereby employers can find job seekers easily, explaining why it’s become so popular among businesses. Another trend being seen by over a quarter of UK companies is the use of these networks in background screening,  but most don’t have a dedicated strategy or understand how to use it effectively. Employers want cost effective ways to inform their hiring decisions and for this they have turned their heads towards social networks. However, are they fully aware of the legal implications as well as the pitfalls of using this content?

Benefits and drawbacks

Putting the legalities aside, there are times when employers may consider performing a social media check. Positions in certain industries do carry a higher level of responsibility and risk, so when recruiting for these roles an examination of the media profile, including a social media check, is advisable to ensure that candidates are not portraying themselves in a way that could be harmful to the business. As with any type of screening, checks should be risk appropriate; it would be unnecessary to examine the media profile of a seasonal temporary job in retail, whereas recruiting for an executive position at a leading bank would require a comprehensive check.

But making judgements and decisions based solely on the findings of a social media check would, from a businesses point of view, be irresponsible. There is rarely any certainty with online content and companies need to be extremely cautious; a social media profile could easily be fraudulent and even if the account is genuine, there is no guarantee that what is posted was done so by the person displayed. According to our research over half of people lie or give inaccurate information on CVs, so there’s nothing to stop them doing this through social media as well. Recruitment decisions should be informed by a comprehensive vetting process that gives a full picture of an individual’s background and not on standalone checks of unverified content.

Legal implications

Over half of people involved in recruitment believe they don’t confidently understand the legal implications of using social media in candidate screening. Therefore, it’s paramount that businesses fully understand the legalities of these checks before they leave their organisation open to discrimination claims.

Employment procedures are often put in place to avoid discrimination, with factors such as age, race and religion usually being withheld from the recruitment process in attempt to promote fairness. However, looking at a candidate’s social media profile could make any of these measures redundant, as the information is instantly available. Employers should make a concerted effort to avoid bias and discrimination as they would with other areas of the process because the law equally applies for offline and online checks.

Another way to overcome legal challenges is to make the applicant aware from an early stage that these searches will be performed. Best practise is always for background screening to be transparent and consensual – this will help to protect businesses against privacy laws, which are yet to be clearly defined in the social media arena.

Employers must understand that they shouldn’t invade people’s private lives and although it’s accepted that potential employers may view a candidate’s profile on a professional network such as LinkedIn, other sites are not structured in quite the same way. The primary role of Facebook for example is social interaction and the content posted on Facebook profiles isn’t something that users expect employers to be looking at. Therefore, companies should make a clear distinction between the different networks.

The future of social media screening 

As more people sign up to LinkedIn, interact with twitter trends and post on Facebook, they disclose more and more information about themselves. Companies considering using social media in their candidate screening should exercise caution and implement a structured policy. In 2013, 35 per cent of companies that had a dedicated social media strategy reported a decrease in discrimination³, highlighting the positive impact it can have, if implemented in the correct way.

The amount of businesses using these networks to screen their candidates will undoubtedly increase in the future, as they are so easily accessible and inexpensive to perform. What this trend means for online professionals is that they must be aware of their own online presence on social networks, because anything they post could have negative implications in the future.

Steve Girdler is managing director EMEA at candidate due diligence company, HireRight. He was previously director of London 2012 for Adecco.