The following blog appeared in our parent company e-newsletter, HR Insights. It was written by Insight Worldwide.

It’s no longer news–to employers or to potential employees–that social media accounts offer a glimpse into the lives of applicants that has never before been possible. At least, that’s the case for those whose information is made available to the public, whether by design or by accident. This enables hiring managers to approach their applicant pool with more information than ever. But using these tools comes with several caveats–some cons to balance out the pros, both from legal and ethical standpoints. Here are some potential pitfalls as well as some good ideas to make sure you’re using these tools wisely.

Heads Up

Let applicants know up front that you intend to review any publicly-posted social media accounts. This allows someone to go in and modify their security settings if there is anything they would prefer not be visible to the world. Transparency is always the best policy, and one way to achieve this is to create a social media policy. (When doing so, however, keep in mind the National Labor Relations Review Board findings that social media postings can contain protected speech–anything you set out in your policy cannot infringe on an employee’s Section 7 rights. Steer clear of trying to tell applicants or employees what they can and cannot say on social media.)

Protected Information

Social media will make you privy to information you likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and wouldn’t have been able to find out through legal questioning. This can be through someone posting about a non-visible handicap, their religion, age, sexual orientation, and more.  To protect yourself against claims that you made decisions based on this information, make sure to remember the most important rule in hiring: be consistent! Research online information from the same sources, at the same point in the application process, for every single applicant. It is best if this is done only by human resources and only after you’ve met with the applicants to avoid even the appearance of having screened based on potentially privileged characteristics.

Document the Search

Make a note of which sites were checked. If you choose to disqualify a candidate because of something you discovered during an online search, print out a screenshot of the content and note your reason for rejection (e.g., “engages in illegal activity” or “shows bad judgment”). Not only will this help refresh your memory if you are questioned about your decision, it also protects you if the applicant deletes the offending material later, then makes a discrimination claim.

Know Your State Laws

Some states limit how much information you can use of an applicant’s off-duty actions in your decision making.  Additionally, if you contract with a 3rd party to review applicants’ social media accounts, you might be reducing your own risk of using protected information, but you will also likely be subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. As with any other aspect of your hiring policy, always discuss any questions with your legal counsel.

Be Fair

Everyone has control over what they post about themselves online; however, they cannot always control what others write. Avoid reviewing information posted online by anyone other than the applicant unless it is clear the applicant endorsed it (such as references or reviews posted on LinkedIn).

Given the tremendous recruiting power of social media, it is only natural that human resource professionals will want to harness that incredible source of information to help in the hiring process itself. Incorporating these tools consistently and carefully will help protect you and your company while allowing you to make more well-informed hiring decisions.

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