Certainly social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, and Twitter provide employers with opportunities to obtain useful, legitimate, and relevant information about a job applicant. But the above Dilbert comic by Scott Adams underscores that there are also risks in using such social media outlets to screen job applicants.  

Specifically, if employers use social media sites to go beyond a job candidate’s resume, they may be opening a Pandora’s box full of information about an applicant’s status in certain protected categories. Examples of such categories include discovering a job candidates’ personal attributes such as race, gender, age, marital status, medical condition, religion, pregnancy status, sexual orientation, disability and political affiliation. All of these characteristics may be protected categories under federal or state law. 

But simply because there are risks in using social media does not mean that these sites cannot be valuable tools or that they should never be used for recruitment purposes. Instead, employers who recruit or screen job applicants through social media and other online sources need to understand these risks and develop policies to manage the potential pitfalls.

Recommendations for Using Social Media to Screen Job Applicants 

A few recommendations that employers should consider when it comes to using social media to screen job applicants: 

  • Before initiating an online search (or any search), employers should consider the job description to be filled and evaluate the objective characteristics a candidate should have, e.g. experience and skills. In addition to narrowing the employer’s focus on the ideal candidate, this may also help focus the social media screening process. For example, if effective written communication skills is essential to the position to be filled, then scouring the Web for blog postings by the candidate makes sense. But if engineering experience specific to micro-tunnelling is critical to the position, than researching a job applicant’s personal likes on Facebook may not make sense.    
  • If screening job applicants through social media will be permitted, then the employer’s policy should clearly identify what information or sites will be reviewed, why these sites are chosen, and what records will be maintained (i.e., screenshots, access dates, etc.). It may make more business sense to only visit professional/career orientated sites like LinkedIn as opposed to a more traditional social networking site like Facebook.
  • Employers may use third-party service providers to review social media and social networking profiles to screen job applicants. If so, it is important to understand that they may have obligations under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  
  • Above all else, it is critical that employers are able to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for any employment decision and retain appropriate documentation to support that decision. This is true for any medium.

These are only a few points that employers should consider in developing a procedure for using social media/social networking to screen potential job applicants. For more information about best practices for screening job applicants through social media, feel free to contact Jason Shinn