Hiring in the age of social media

In this article Summa McCosker, MD of PeopleCheck, explores the ramifications of employers utilising social media as a background checking tool and the legality of using details extracted via this means to make hiring decisions.

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 led employers to look at accessing this personal information as part of background checking.

Social media in background checking 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.

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 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

A recent study conducted by North Carolina State Universityidentified 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 possesseed these personality traits, based on the content of the candiate’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.

PeopleCheck’s “post” on social media screening

Over the years the background checking industry has progressed and has on occasion crossed into the realm of social media. In the US, new legislation has been introduced or is pending in approximately 36 states to prevent employer access to social media usernames and passwords.

Australia is not yet following suit with laws coming in to place; however, the legal ramifications of obtaining such information can still include a breach of The Privacy Act 1988, Fair Work Act 2009 or may even lead to deceptive conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law.

Managing Director of PeopleCheck, Summa McCosker advises that if employers are going to incorporate social media screening into the hiring process then they need to do so with care and ensure they include a variety of checks and sources rather than using social media as a ‘standalone check’. An effective pre-employment screening process may include:

  • Written applications;
  • Interviews;
  • Pyschometric testing;
  • Drug and alcohol/medical assessment; and
  • Background checking.

PeopleCheck presents the following possible scenarios:

Scenario 1 – Unfair recruitment process

Consider if one candidate has a social media profile, but the other applicant in the running does not. Is one of these candidates going to be in favour of the position and the other one at a disadvantage?

Scenario 2 – Spent conviction scheme implications

Consider if an employer reviewed an applicant’s profile page and noticed a post from a friend mentioning a past criminal offence that could possibly be a spent conviction (this varies from state to state but generally results from a 10 year crime-free period). The employer may not hire that person as a result, not being aware that it is illegal to consider Spent Convications under the Spent Conviction legislation.

Scenario 3 – Multiple persona

Another scenario that could eventuate is the candidate who is well prepared and sets up multiple profiles during the recruitment process (one private and one for business). Employers could be looking at a decoy and therefore accessing this information is not an accurate reflection of the candidate and is in fact fiction!

The final word

Six Degrees Executive recommend that all of our clients conduct background checking on potential employees utilising a professional, third party supplier, such as PeopleCheck. Factual/ role specific information should be collated from reputable sources. Additioinally, the risks involved in social media screening outweigh the potential benefits of these tools.

Summa McCosker

Managing Director

About PeopleCheck

PeopleCheck specialises in professional, cost effective and efficient international pre-employment validations. We tailor our employment background checking solutions to each of our clients to ensure your background checking program complements your business needs.

To contact PeopleCheck please email validate@peoplecheck.com.au or phone (02) 4023 0603


Further reading

  • Edmond, C. (2013, 24 October). Rethinking your social media policy. HC Online. Retrieved from http://www.hcamag.com
  • Levey Frisch, J. (2013, 9 May). Social Media and Pre- employment Screening: Beware of the Double-edged Sword! The Emplawyerologist. Retrieved from http://www.theemplawyerologist.com
  • Karras, A. (2013, 29 October). Australia: Social media and the workplace. Mondaq. Retrieved from http://www.mondaq.com