Facebook isn’t just for posting photos of pets in cowboy hats or finding out what became of old high school sweethearts. No, social media sites are increasingly finding their way into the workplace, and not just as a time-waster.
Many HR professionals rely on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to find and recruit promising potential hires. According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 77 percent of companies use social media to identify candidates for positions. In fact, according to some experts, social media may be one of the best ways to engage with the highly coveted passive candidate, who is unlikely to have posted a resume on a job site.
Yet social media engagement statistics drop sharply when it comes to using these networking sites as a form of pre-employment screening. The same SHRM survey found that only 20 percent of HR professionals used social media to research candidates. Those who did tended to pay the most attention to inappropriate or unprofessional public posts that might shed a negative light on the organization in the future.
“Social media vetting is a contentious issue in the HR community.”
To be sure, the use of sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for vetting potential candidates is a contentious issue in the HR community. Some argue that the practice is unethical and violates candidates’ right to privacy. HR execs who turn a blind eye to social media have argued that the views and opinions people express in their free time have no bearing on their ability to get the job done. Still, HR teams who turn to social media often feel the information and photos posted on these platforms is in the public domain, and it would be foolish not to use it.
Whether an HR team incorporates social media vetting into their pre-hire screening process can be influenced by the industry, demographics of the workforce, public nature of the position and even the organizational culture. Yet there are a few universal pros and cons that HR professionals should weigh when deciding whether to add social media to their screening tool kit:
Pro: It can give greater insight into an applicant’s abilities
A resume is a very small, static window into a potential employee’s work experience and qualifications. In contrast, sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter allow candidates a dynamic platform for exhibiting their work. For instance, many journalists share links to their clips on Twitter, or even post samples of their articles to industry-specific portfolio sites such as Contently. Graphic designers frequently will post samples of their work or pieces they find inspirational to social media, treating these sites like an evolving, informal portfolio. And even when creative professionals use a site like Facebook more typically for social matters, these casual posts offer a future employer a good sense of their voice, tact and professionalism. Those are the same skills they might bring to bear on the open position in question.
Con: It could reveal protected information
Why do 80 percent of those surveyed by SHRM avoid using social media to vet employees? A majority cite legal risk and the possibility of stumbling upon information that is usually protected including age, race and gender. Even when this information is obtained accidentally, if it has an impact on the ultimate hiring decision a candidate could argue discrimination. Many HR professionals would rather cede the potential benefits of using social media rather than opening the organization up to potential discrimination lawsuits.
Pro: It can reveal ugly incidents
Despite social media’s vast reach and public nature, candidates remain much more likely to be forthright in a tweet than they are in a job application or in-person interview. Social media sites are a good place to scan for potentially inappropriate behavior, such as overt acts of racism, sexism or other discriminatory behaviors. In fact, according to a Career Builder survey, of the red flags raised by social media, 28 percent are of a discriminatory nature. Hate speech can be a red flag for the HR team that a candidate might not fit into the organizational culture.
Con: It isn’t always reliable
In a world where Twitter accounts for brands like Burger King, Jeep and Fox News can get hacked, HR professionals can never be 100 percent certain that comments and content posted to a candidate’s page or wall is authentic. And unless the would-be employee provides links to all of their social media accounts, there’s a potential for an HR professional to find an impostor account and mistake it for a valid one. There’s also the possibility of misconstruing pictures, messages or other information posted when this content is posted by someone with a similar name.
“Sometimes social media can be an employee’s best advocate.”
Pro: It can make an even better case for an employee
According to Career Builder, 33 percent of employers that used social media to research a candidate reported that they found content that made them more likely to hire the employee. And 23 percent said that they found information that directly led to hiring the applicant. Sometimes social media can be an employee’s best advocate.
Con: It could raise equal employment opportunity concerns
When social media vetting becomes part of the candidate screening process, it could unfairly discount candidates who don’t have active social media presences. What if a candidate doesn’t have a social media footprint at all? Will that adversely affect their chances of being hired or even interviewed? It shouldn’t, but it’s hard to control perceptions in the modern litigious environment.
Experts say that using social media as a screening tool is all about managing risk. The American Bar Association recommends hiring a third-party vendor to conduct the social media searches. An added bonus: “Most helpful, a third party’s web-crawler system can typically review more webpages than an individual hiring manager tapping away at individual websites like Facebook and Twitter,” the ABA states. If social media screening must be conducted in-house, never ask for a candidate’s passwords. That practice is illegal in several states and opens the organization up to the possibility of violating the Stored Communications Act.
Ultimately, social media research should be only a small part of the pre-screening process. HR professionals should be sure to conduct a thorough screening that includes a criminal background check and reference check to get the full picture of the applicant. Relying on 140 characters or less simply won’t do.