The internet provides a convenient venue for you to dig up dirt on candidates who want a job with your company. This rise in popularity of social networks – and most people’s failure to alter privacy settings – can provide you with a trove of information you may never learn from an application, resume or interview. Relying on the internet as an employee screening method, however, is not without its dangers and drawbacks.
Is It Legal?
As of January 2012, there were no court cases related to an employer using the internet or a social networking site as a means of employee background screening. However, a prospective employee may consider an internet search to be an invasion of privacy. Many individuals consider some parts of their lives private, such as pictures you might find on a social networking site. At the same time, you may learn about current or past behaviors that you might find questionable, but that have no bearing on the applicant’s ability to do the job.
While the legality of using the internet as an employee screening method is up in the air, there are ethical dilemmas related to using pretexts to gain information about an individual online. Pretexting is the act of creating a fake identity so you can gain access to private information a candidate may share only with certain individuals. For example, if a hiring manager created a fake social networking account in order to connect with a prospective employee and gain personal information, this individual is probably violating the social network’s user agreement (the popular ones specifically state that you cannot create an account using a false identity). Moreover, in some states, it is against the law to use a candidate’s off-duty, private behavior to make an employment decision.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is unlawful to base a hiring decision on a candidate’s gender, race, nationality, heritage, religion, age, marital status, status of pregnancy, medical condition or sexual orientation. In essence, you should only base your decision to hire an individual based on that person’s ability to perform the duties necessary. By conducting employee background screening on the internet, you run the risk of learning too much information, such as details that could sway your decision to hire an individual.
For example, a hiring manager may find a seemingly perfect candidate after a telephone interview, and then look her up online. Upon doing a bit of research, the hiring manager may find out that the applicant is pregnant, even though she is not showing any signs of her condition. Consequently, the certainty that this individual will need maternity leave may sway the hiring manager’s decision to hire a perfectly capable and qualified individual.
Alternatively, if a candidate learns that a company performs employee screenings through basic internet searches and does not get the job, it could be difficult for the company to prove that the hiring decision was not discriminatory or based on internet findings.
Handling the So-Called Truth
Using information about a candidate that you find on the internet, particularly on social networking sites, can be a problematic employee screening method because it may not reveal the candidate’s true personality and ability to perform the functions of a job. Furthermore, it can be hard to know if what you see posted online is true. In addition to posting exaggerations or jokes as status updates, friends (or cyber bullies) may post lies about a job candidate on his or her blog, website or social networking “wall.” It is also important to bear in mind that a candidate may not have a unique name, so the information you find may not even appropriately apply to the individual seeking a job with your company.
Before taking employee background screening into your own hands, talk with your company’s lawyer so you can develop a written policy about hiring procedures and how the company plans to use information learned about a candidate through the internet. For the best legal protection, however, it is best to post on a job announcement that the company does use the internet as a means to learn more about a candidate. Then, look at personal information (such as that found on social networks) only after obtaining written consent from the individual. Regardless of the employment practice your company chooses, it is wise to put it in writing and make it accessible to your current and prospective employees.