Why It’s Bad Idea to Check a Job Applicant’s Facebook Profile

The online era arms small-business owners with myriad tools and information for finding and hiring employees. It can be tempting to scope out a potential employee’s social profiles, too. Yet using social media to dig up dirt on an applicant can lead to hiring mistakes and even legal trouble.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to check out a person’s social-media presence before hiring them,” says Jennifer McClure, president of Unbridled Talent. “We should be evaluating candidates based upon their skills and work experience, and providing enough detail in the interview process about our culture so that both the candidate and the employer can make decisions about cultural fit.”

So, what’s a small-business owner to do? The Intuit Small Business Blog asked McClure, an HR veteran who counts “social recruiting” among her areas of expertise, how to steer clear of potential problems and hire the best people possible.

ISBB: What’s wrong with checking out a job candidate’s Facebook profile?

McClure: By looking at someone’s Facebook profile, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. They may have some information set to be private and not available for you to view, or some things can easily be taken out of context. Photo with a drink in hand? Do you know what’s in that drink? Is it OK to have just one? Are they laughing and having a good time? Does that mean they’re drunk? All of these questions require assumptions on the part of the person viewing the profile, and rarely do these types of personal assessments have anything to do with the work environment. Again, I believe the challenge is on the interview team to ask good questions, offer real-life scenarios that happen in the workplace, and see how the candidate responds.

I can’t help myself. I have to look them up on Facebook.

If an employer feels like they must look at Facebook profiles for applicants, then it’s best to have an outside third party do it who can review profiles within a predetermined set of guidelines. This will ensure consistency and remove any possibility of discrimination among applications. The most important thing to remember: If you’re going to look at one candidate’s profile, you must look at them all. Consistency is critical.

What social-networking sites should small-business owners check?

LinkedIn is a great place to look when considering candidates for a position. It’s a professional social network and gives potential employers the opportunity to check the applicant’s resume against their LinkedIn profile for consistency. Employers can also view recommendations of past colleagues and business associates, though those should not replace the reference-checking process. The LinkedIn profile allows a lot of opportunity for job-seekers and business professionals to highlight their skills and display their prior work successes.

What kinds of online information should send up red flags about a job candidate?

Any inconsistencies between data found online and information listed on the resume should be considered a red flag. Often, candidates may embellish their experience or leave out possible negative information on a resume because they assume it is only seen by someone who will not necessarily be able to verify the facts. Online information is often more accurate because it will be seen by past employers and co-workers, and therefore could be challenged.

Can a business owner get in trouble for social snooping?

Absolutely. Any information gathered for the purpose of considering someone for hire has to be applied fairly — and the screening process must be consistent for all applicants. A hypothetical example: A minority applicant is not hired because an employer found derogatory or racist comments on their Facebook profile, and the applicant sues claiming discrimination in the hiring process. If it is revealed that the employer only checked Facebook profiles of individuals of a certain race or age, then their hiring process could be considered discriminatory.

Again, guidelines and consistency are a must; I recommend having a third party perform any social background checks as part of the normal background-check process.

About Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey is a regular contributor here, at InformationWeek and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @kevinrcasey.
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