Job applicants, social media and the law

When it comes to job hunting, candidates no longer have to worry simply about their CV, interview skills and aptitude for psychometric tests, they also need to think about that drunken photograph or snide comment they put up on Facebook six months ago.  However, there is a flip side to this which employers don’t seem to be aware of: they may be flouting the law.

These are the key findings from a study that Chartered Psychologist Rob Bailey from OPP is presenting today at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Occupational Psychology Conference in Chester.

The study concludes that companies who use social networking sites (SNS) to vet potential new employees are at risk of falling foul of employment and data protection laws.

SNS screening has the potential to result in a charge of discrimination. How?  It could be used to weed out a job applicant for reasons outlawed under anti-discrimination laws, for example, because of their colour, gender or age. Knowing that a company has checked out their social networking page, an unsuccessful applicant might allege that the decision to reject them was based on subjective biases, rather than sound work-related criteria. If an SNS search is done before an employment offer, without a policy to guide it, it is highly likely to be done in private and not recorded; these are conditions where bias and discrimination are more likely to occur.

The online study conducted between February and March 2011, analysed a nationally representative sample of over 1000 people of working age in the UK & Ireland. Personality was also measured using the 16PF personality questionnaire.

People might be shocked to find how often employers search SNS for information about them during the hiring process. In the present study 65% of respondents said they were likely to look at a potential employee’s online presence prior to interviewing them.

To organisations that choose to run the risk of using social networking sites in their recruitment process, Rob Bailey has some advice, “Prepare a clear company policy based on sound legal advice. This should include such policies as not adding an applicant as a friend in order to investigate their background, as this would risk breaching data protection legislation.”

His advice to potential candidates, “Lock down your Facebook privacy settings completely! Or if you don’t do this, make sure any level of information you share is appropriate for the social media image that you are trying to create. Twitter is completely public; only share things that support the reputation that you are trying to create. Use LinkedIn like a professional networking event – your profile is your CV and your discussions are places for professional, respectful conversations.”

Social networking sites are not naturally respectful of privacy, reputation and control. As etiquette, expectations, policies and laws for SNS use evolve, employers and employees need to take utmost care over their use of SNS.

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