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Last Word: Hey, Job Candidates – If It’s In The Public Domain, It’s Fair Game

by savanna in How to Find a Job 25/01/2016

Here’s something to remember about our always-connected Internet age: People are addicted to social media — and that addiction can have some pretty frightening consequences.

This came to mind after seeing the results of the latest SHRM survey this week that found that, “Over one-third (36 percent) of companies have disqualified a job candidate in the past year because of concerns about information found on public social media or an online search.”

The findings were part of a larger SHRM survey about how organizations are using social media, particularly with recruitment, and the survey went on to say that when organizations disqualified a candidate because of what was found on social media, it was usually for “illegal activity and discrepancies with job applications, among other reasons.”

However, the survey also noted that “two out of five organizations (39 percent) also allowed those candidates to explain any concerning information, an increase of 13 percentage points compared to 2011.”

Most companies have no policy on social media sourcing

Another finding: 59 percent of companies have no formal or informal policy about using social media to source job candidates, although 21 percent of those organizations without a formal policy said they plan to implement one in the next 12 months.

Not surprisingly, only 6 percent of companies say they have a formal policy prohibiting using social media for applicant screening; 13 percent say they have “an informal policy prohibiting social media screening” — whatever that means.

So, after digesting all of that survey info, here’s the $64,000 question: Should we use social media to check out job candidates?

My simple answer: Given that people are willingly posting details about themselves publicly on social media, why the hell not?

Public information is fair game when it comes to hiring and firing. There is nothing illegal, immoral, or inappropriate about considering things that candidates freely and openly make public.

But, many others don’t agree.

Is everything someone posts online fair game?

One of them is Steven Strauss, a visiting professor at Princeton University‘s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and he just had an opinion article published in the Los Angeles Timestitled, Applying For a Job? Better Delete Your Social Media Accounts. He writes:

Never has it been so easy to conduct legitimate background checks or verify credentials; and never has it been so easy to surreptitiously research prospective employees’ religion, race or personal views. Employment discrimination is of course illegal. However, we know that discrimination occurs, and online searches can covertly facilitate it.”

Most of Prof. Strauss’ article focuses on the potential abuses that occur when social media is used for candidate screening, particularly the potential to discriminate against candidates because of information employers have found on the Internet.

It’s a good argument, but as someone who was involved in a lot of hiring both before and after the Internet came into being, it doesn’t seem to me that there has been any huge upsurge in employment discrimination going on now than there was before due to social media.

I’d love to see any good research that says that there is.

What interested me most about this LA Times article were the four remedies to this social media problem that Prof. Strauss listed:

  1. Social media companies “should be more thoughtful about the information they collect, and how they make it available — weighing the benefit of what they collect against the possible harm it can cause.”
  2. Companies “should have explicit policies restricting background searches to only workplace-relevant material.”
  3. Government agencies “should seek ways to more aggressively test companies’ compliance with existing laws barring discrimination,” and;
  4. “We should all be careful about what we publish online. As a practical matter, we should assume that anything posted will eventually become public, and that present and future employers, among others, will see it. “

You gotta be careful about what you post online

Those are all good points, but I was struck by how backwards the list is. Shouldn’t “we should all be careful about what we publish online” be No. 1? Isn’t that the most critical factor here?

No one is making anyone post personal information about themselves online, and frankly, if people don’t post it there’s no way to discriminate against them by recruiters, potential employers, or anyone else.

I know, I know; some of you will make the case that posting information online is simply part of the Internet Age we live in, and that it’s unrealistic for people to not do it.

I get that, but I’m amazed at some of the incredibly personal and inappropriate photos and information so many people post publicly online for anyone (and everyone) to see. Whatever happened to the notion that you shouldn’t post it if it was something  you wouldn’t say or show to your grandmother?

The SHRM survey on how employers use social media to check on candidates isn’t a big surprise, but it should be a reminder, especially to job applicants, that people are using modern social media tools to find out more about those who want to work for them.

If it’s in the public domain, it’s fair game. It’s a shame that more people on social media don’t consider that.

Of course, there’s more than what job candidates post online in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly wrap-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • What do hiring managers REALLY think about your tattoos? Business Insider pointed this week to a Skininfo.com survey that found that although 14 percent of the population has at least one tattoo, “a whopping 37 percent of HR managers cite tattoos as the third most likely physical attribute to limit career potential, and there are currently no laws protecting people with tattoos from discrimination in the hiring process.”
  • Finding high performers who take a career break. The Harvard Business Review reports that companies are increasingly trying to figure out how to connect with high performers who have taken a hiatus from their career but now want to come back to work. They say, “One of the most effective tools to increase the odds of re-hiring a high performer returning from career break is by conducting well-crafted exit interviews and skillful post-employment follow-up. Employers who make the exit interview a meaningful experience and offer a concrete means of maintaining a close connection once the employee has left are sending a strong message to employees departing for career breaks … The exit interview provides an opportunity to reassure the employee that the relationship with the company will continue, and that the employer remains invested.”
  • How Google got it wrong when it comes to open offices. I’ve written a lot about why I believe open offices do more harm than good (and, I’m one of the few writing about them that has actually worked in one), but Lindsey Kaufman made the same case recently in The Washington Post. She says, “A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.”
  • Why the boss doesn’t want your resume. Think the traditional resume is dead? Well, here’s another article, from The Wall Street Journal this time, making a case for why the old school resume does you more harm than good.

By John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of TLNT.com, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices.