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Is it ever right to use social media to check on potential employees?

One evening recently I was busy in my kitchen and caught the back end of a radio debate. If I heard one speaker correctly, over 50% of London employers admit to checking out potential employees via social media. If that statistic is true it is a sobering thought. This is not, of course, a new story. The Daily Telegraph published some similar data way back in 2010.

Last year I took part in a panel discussion at the 2015 CIPD Recruitment Conference (#CIPDrec15) on the ethics and legality of using social media in this way. I drafted a blog at the time which never saw the light of day. So I decided to dust it off and publish it.

Some commentators on this issue appear to take the stance that what you are entitled to look at on line depends on what social media platform is involved. For example I often hear the argument: Facebook is personal and LinkedIn is professional. However I am not convinced that line holds water. There is now plenty of case law that suggests that making inappropriate comments about your employer on Facebook can get you in to hot water. So I figure that particular work/private life boundary has been well and truly breached.

By contrast, I always start my contributions to this debate with the question “why would a line manager actually want to spend their time trawling Facebook, Twitter etc for information on candidates anyway?” I have my answer and it goes something like this.

As far back in the 1980’s (for those that remember them) people were starting to ring the changes in our world. “Information is the oxygen of the modern age” said Ronald Reagan. And he was right. We have never had, or demanded, more information than we do today.

By contrast referencing has generally moved in the opposite direction – in many cases references now tell you next to nothing. Perhaps only last job title and dates employed from and to. So no wonder this generates a problem in a world where information is so generally accessible.

Studying for my A levels I had to walk a mile and a half to the local library to look up things in books. So I did it sparingly. Today my children move their fingers across keyboards and have a new best friend called Google. To them any question should have an instantaneous and comprehensive answer delivered to the comfort of the sofa or their bedroom. That’s a whole lot more fun than being scowled at by a librarian who questions the temerity of a teenager wandering into their temple of silence.

“Nature abhors a vacuum”. Quite right Aristotle. He may have said it about 2,400 years ago but this completely sums up the problem. If HR can’t provide quality information in the age of Google then DIY checking is almost guaranteed. And it won’t mean a walk to the library. Just a peek at the iPad in front of the telly will suffice.

Of course just running Google searches is a minefield. My surname isn’t that common but there are at least two Ian Gooden’s in the UK with the job title of Chief Executive. Recently I’ve been getting marketing material that was so obviously meant for one of my namesakes. If you are John Smith… I wonder how many “homemade” searches find interesting information – on completely the wrong person.

Trouble is, HR can’t realistically do anything about this practice. Yes, I suppose they could get IT to block access to Facebook, Instagram etc on company devices and networks. And make all sorts noises in policy documents and handbooks. However they can’t see, or control, what managers do at home. The vast majority of UK homes now have broadband and we surf the web to our hearts content. You can’t control what people do at home, on their own device, on the sofa, in front of the telly.

The internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee famously said “Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it’s all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well”.

He’s got it in a nutshell. If you put information out there on the web expect people to read it and use it. And that includes uploading photographs that would make your Mum weep and your Dad mad. And make a potential employer think twice about hiring you.

Oh, and we need to remember that this issue cuts two ways. Job seekers are now doing their homework on interviewers and hiring managers. They are looking at your LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook etc accounts before they come to interview. Including searching for that small edge that might help them build rapport. Like what football team you support or the causes you care about.

Personally I think there are two pressing issues. Firstly we all have to be more informed about managing our on-line presence. While privacy settings are part of the answer (I remain shocked how many people leave their Facebook accounts etc wide open to the world) they are not enough. If somebody wants information on you bad enough they’ll find a way to get it. If you don’t want them to have it, don’t put it on the internet. You can argue all you like about the ethics and legalities – but once the damage is done you can’t easily put the genie back in the bottle. Chances are you won’t even know who’s browsed your on-line presence. Or ever be able to prove that drove a hiring decision.

Secondly HR as a profession needs to re-think its approach to referencing to reflect the realities of the information age. If employers all agreed to give more expansive information in references then that might stop the DIY approach to on-line candidate checking in its tracks. If all the profession is prepared to share are name, dates employed and last job title then the information generation of line managers will not, I suggest, sit back and accept it. They’ll find their own solution instead. And it is just a click away.

What do you think – have you ever checked a potential employees social media profiles, and has it affected your hiring decision?

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