Friends and family may be your most active followers, but they are not your only ones. Potential and current employers may also be looking at that most recent post or profile picture, and they might not “like” what they see.
According to a recent national study by CareerBuilder, 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates before hiring, up significantly from 60 percent in the same period of 2016 and 11 percent in 2006. Three in 10 employers have someone dedicated to the task.
According the study, employers who use social networking sites are looking for information that supports their qualifications for the job (61 percent), a professional online persona (50 percent), what other people are posting about the candidates (37 percent) and for a reason not to hire a candidate (24 percent).
Reasons for not hiring candidates were inappropriate photos, excessive or illegal drug and alcohol use, discriminatory comments, rants against a previous company or employee, and lying about qualifications.
But it’s not just job candidates who have to handle their cyber activities with care.
“The risk is an employer can find out things that they can’t unsee,” said Daniel Basnight, a counsel and litigation attorney at Kaufman & Canoles who defends organizations facing discrimination suits.
Under Title VII, the federal primary discrimination law, it is illegal for employers to discriminate in their hiring process based on protected characteristics including race, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, disability and age – all which easily could be deduced from a public social media profile. Title VII has no mention of social media directly, which leaves several gray areas.
Lisa Bertini often represents employees in discrimination suits at her Virginia Beach firm, Bertini Law P.C.
“Employers can get away with a lot more then they can ever get tagged on.” If a client speculates he/she wasn’t hired because an employer had formed a discriminatory opinion based on social media, “that’s not enough, in Virginia at least,” Bertini said. To have a strong discrimination case, she said, there would need to be another piece of evidence such as a coworker’s conversation with the boss that indicated some discrimination toward the client.
“The bigger picture is whatever you put out there, you may never know why you weren’t hired,” she said. “It’s so subtle and discrete. Discrimination happens even without social media.”
Both Bertini and Basnight agreed social media profiles are entirely public and not a privacy issue, unless an employer asks for a password to an account. That is illegal in many states, including Virginia. Both lawyers agreed, however, there is plenty of legitimate information employers can use.
Political views expressed on social media, for example, are not legally protected. Employers can make a hiring decision based on extreme or inflammatory opinions.
Basnight puts political views in the gray area, and, although legal, he advises employers leave this off the checklist when screening social media in order to foster diversity of opinions in a workspace.
Bertini, however, says it is perfectly legitimate and that she even includes this on her checklist when hiring new attorneys at her firm. “All you need is a good business reason – ‘your beliefs are extreme and offensive and could be offensive to my clients,’ ” she said.
However, sometimes political opinions can cross the line into religious beliefs which, depending on the circumstance, could be argued as discrimination against the applicant’s religion. Bertini said the role of social media in employment is growing and almost anything can be argued. She advised discretion for employers and candidates.
“Finding out this information could lead employers down a dark alley, except it’s not a dark alley. It’s an alley that’s well lit,” Bertini said.
To avoid discrimination suits, Basnight advises clients to separate the screening and hiring processes. A designated screener would scan social media using a narrow checklist, and pass on any relevant information to the hiring manager but withhold any information regarding protected characteristics.
“The narrower the checklist, the safer it is,” Basnight said.
Bertini agreed. “Use discretion. The employer has to be most careful when they glean or learn information that they wouldn’t get in an otherwise legitimate way.”
For job applicants the advice is clear: “Do not put out there what you are not able to take the consequences of,” Bertini said. “Would you want that on the front cover of a newspaper? If not, make it private, and even then do not trust your followers to not share publicly what you post.”
In industries that work closely with people – such as health care, education, and hospitality – an employee’s personality and public image is extremely important for the reputation of the organization.
However, among a sampling of Hampton Roads organizations – Sentara, Bon Secours, Norfolk Collegiate, Norfolk Public Schools and Coastal Hospitality Associates – none uses social media to screen job applicants.
Many have other ways of screening applicants. Norfolk Collegiate and Coastal Hospitality both indicated their employees go through a formal background check through the police department. Coastal Hospitality conducts strictly detailed behavioral interviews and also relies on personal and professional recommendations as part of its hiring process.
Although these organizations do not use social media to screen applicants, four organizations indicated they have a handbook or written guidelines for employees about appropriate social media conduct.
Sentara has “a formal social media internet activity stand-alone policy,” said Jennifer Leigh, system director for employee relations. The policies include information on things like handling confidentiality, not friending subordinates or representing the organization in public.
Many companies use social media to recruit applicants.
“Organizations should use social media to recruit,” said Basnight from Kaufman & Canoles. “It’s wonderful and cost-effective. But don’t rely solely on social media, otherwise, you could be missing part of the population.”
In the hypothetical situation of an employee making an inappropriate post that spiked red flags in relation to the guidelines, the general consensus among human resources departments was they would handle it internally, and encourage constructive conversations.
When asked about the future of their organizations’ policies on screening applicants’ social media accounts, many said there are no short-term plans to change the policy but they would leave the option open.
“I am sure that as social media becomes more interwoven in the fabric of daily personal and work life, and as the types of social media evolves, there will be revisions to existing policies and the creation of new ones for most organizations,” said Khalilah LeGrand, senior director of communications at Norfolk Public Schools.