Social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, has become increasingly popular in the workplace, particularly for recruitment. It’s not uncommon for employers to use social media to source applicants, enhance communication, and build relationships with prospective customers – and in fact the use of social media has become a norm among great workplaces. But does social media have a place in the screening and selection of job candidates? In a recent review, Ford (2009) found that more than 30% of organizations use Facebook to learn about job candidates, and 80% of organizations factor this information into the hiring process.
Here are three things to consider when using online information for selection. Please note that the information below should not be construed as legal advice, and is simply based on current research related to social media and selection.
1. Is it valid?
First, an organization should be concerned with the validity of using social media for selection. That is, does the information found online about an applicant actually predict whether or not that person will do well on the job? Is the information used to make these decisions job-related? The resounding answer is “we don’t know.” Zickar and Lake (2010) reviewed the evidence for using information gleaned from social media, and determined that there is no firm evidence, one way or the other, that indicates whether or not this practice is valid. As with other selection tools, employers should be cautious in using selection tools not deemed as valid predictors of job performance.
2. Is it legal?
To date, no laws or edicts have been passed forbidding the use of online information for selection purposes. Any information posted on the internet is considered “public domain” and can be used however an organization wishes to use it as long as these decisions do not discriminate under the Civil Rights Act or any other law forbidding discrimination (e.g., Age Discrimination Act). However, organizations should tread carefully here, as information—such as race and age—is readily available online, and accusations of discrimination might be made based on the perception that this sensitive information is used. State and federal laws discourage gathering “too much information” on job candidates, and organizations are at risk if this “too much information” is gathered online (e.g., Vanderzanden, French, & Pitney, 2009).
Despite these risks, if your organization is going to use social media in your applicant screening process, consider refraining from investigating an individual’s online or “cyber-reputation” until after you’ve reviewed the applicant’s resume and credentials, administered selection tests, and met with that person face-to-face. This may limit potential liability issues if you ultimately do not hire that individual.
3. Is it worth it?
So with all the potential risks why use social media as a screening tool at all? A valid concern for employers is that candidates may have posted information online that, if hired, could potentially harm the reputation of the organization. This includes, but is not limited to, inappropriate pictures and comments, sharing opinions that are controversial or contrary to the values and mission of the organization, or demonstrating behavior that suggests the individual may be a risk for disclosing confidential or proprietary information. Depending on the position for which a candidate is applying, a negative “cyber-reputation” could affect public perceptions of the organization if the person is hired.
While there isn’t necessarily any direct evidence that one’s pre-employment “cyber-reputation” can be relied upon as a valid predictor of that person’s future performance in a job, there still may be other reasons to use social media as part of your selection process, depending on the position for which the candidate is applying. For example, if communication or design skills are essential functions of the position, a candidate’s blog postings, “tweets”, or postings on photo or image-sharing sites like Flikr might help you get a better feel for the person’s abilities. It may be a requirement for candidates applying for positions in marketing or public relations to maintain a polished and professional public image, and an evaluation of the candidate’s “cyber-reputation” may provide an organization some insight into how that person has maintained that image in the past. Sites like LinkedIn, for example, could be an excellent tool through which an organization can quickly and easily view information about a candidate’s past work history, education, and other relevant activities.
But, if your organization doesn’t think the potential benefits outweigh the risks, it may decide to avoid social media sites to help screen candidates. Instead, it may be more beneficial to focus more energy on trying to monitor how current employees’ contributions in the world of social media may affect the organization. Here is some additional advice on what organizations can do to protect themselves.
- Off-duty conduct. Your organization might consider adding an “off-duty conduct” policy, advising employees that any behavior that could adversely affect the reputation of the organization is prohibited, and this extends to social media (e.g., posting inappropriate pictures).
- Check your “cyber reputation.” Employers might consider advising employees to enter their own names into a search engine and see what information exists online. Companies, like Reputation Defender, exist to do these searches for you, and to help clear online reputations.
- Check their “cyber reputation.” An ERC survey (2009) found that 46% of organizations informally monitor their employees’ use of social media. With this in mind, an organization could set a formal policy in which employees’ “cyber reputations” are periodically investigated. However, this should be an explicit policy rather than a covert operation; otherwise, employees may become upset (Zickar & Lake, 2010).
- Advise caution. An employee might not think that posting on a blog about a controversial topic would hurt the organization, but the effects of a single blog post can be far-reaching. As such, advise that employees use caution and good common sense when linking their name to anything on the internet. Employers might even provide a database outlining “good” online conduct.
- Ford, J. (2009). Why employers should reconsider Facebook fishing. Four reasons what you find out can hurt you. Marketwatch.com.
- Maclim, T. (2006). Growing number of job searches disrupted by digital dirt. Execunet.com.
- Vanderzanden, D., & French, M. (2009). Too much information: The dangers of Googling job applicants. Commonwealth Institute.
- Zickar, M., & Lake, C. (2010). Practice agenda: Innovative uses of technologically-enhance assessment. Working Manuscript
- Surveys: For benchmark information on how other employers in Northeast Ohio are using social media in their workplaces, please download this free report here. Also, be sure to check out Quick Hits next week when we’ll publish our Staffing Practices Survey which will provide insights on how organizations in our local region are approaching staffing.
- HR Help Desk: For sample policies, practices, and best practices related to using social media or selecting job candidates, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.