Hiring in the age of social media: don’t be creepy

Leslie Poston's dog Faulkner ©Leslie Poston, Not for Reuse

Leslie Poston’s dog Faulkner ©Leslie Poston, Not for Reuse

An interesting question popped up in a social media group I frequent. It’s a common question, worth sharing here:

“How much weight do you give social media in the hiring process? I am finding more and more that as I review a candidate with the needed qualifications, unfortunately their Facebook, Twitter, etc reflects a person that I don’t want representing my business. Sometimes it’s unprofessional language, sometimes it’s negative comments about their current or past employers, sometimes it’s much, much worse. So is it possible to be two entirely different people (real life vs social life) or is their resume just created to land the job?”

My answer was:

“According to the NLRB employers can not request passwords or access to employee accounts, nor can they discriminate based on social media. It falls under the same protections as not being able to ask if they are pregnant, what religion they are, etc. This is a debate that has raged online since long before social media. Looking at personal social media is tricky at best. Looking at blog posts that demonstrate expertise, however, is different. It’s a fine line.

The ethics are clear to me. Even if you are overwhelmed by how many people apply for a job these days, even if you are a nice person, even if you mean no harm, even if you hold yourself at arms length and don’t ask for access, even if it makes your job easier, even if #allthereasons: if you would not be able to easily find out in a job interview or a reference check, it’s not something you should be using to determine hire. If you aren’t finding out what kind of person the applicant is in the interview, ask better [legal] questions. :)”

That this question is still asked so often is partially a testament that our laws have not caught up with our tech, in many cases. It also shows that when they have, people simply like things that are easy.

What is ethically ok for a potential employer to use in making a hiring decision from social media profiles?

  1. Demonstrations of knowledge on a topic (or lack thereof)
  2. Examples of work that have been shared
  3. Examples of expertise
  4. Publications, such as a blog, relevant to the job being hired for
  5. Recommendations (or lack thereof) from peers, clients and colleagues

What is ethically ok for an employer to use in firing an employee or deciding not to hire a potential applicant from social media profiles?

  1. Incidents of slander or libel
  2. Disclosure of a company’s secrets [potential violation of employee conduct guidelines or NDA agreements]
  3. Concrete lies related to employment [e.g. saying they hold a Ph.D. in Astrophysics when they have a G.E.D.]
  4. Impersonating someone else
  5. Committing fraud or otherwise conducting illegal acts
  6. …I think you see where I’m headed with this list.

“But, it’s so easy to tell if someone is a jerk online, and I don’t want to work with jerks! This is tying my hands.”

I know. I feel you. I don’t want to work with jerks either. But here’s the thing: you don’t know that person is a jerk. You only know a. their online persona that they have chosen to present to [what they think is] the anonymous internet acts like a jerk and b. they aren’t patient or savvy enough to learn about internet privacy and how to limit their audience. That’s it. You still need to ask better questions and change your interview process to weed out the real jerks. It’s hard, but you can do it. The onus is on you as a potential employer in this online world.

Here’s a bonus pro tip: Once you do hire that golden employee after your now-stellar interview process, you still can’t tell them what to publish to their personal social media accounts. A lot of folks don’t know that tidbit. You may provide clear guidelines about employee conduct in your employee manual. You may clearly outline what would be considered a violation leading to termination. You may hold classes in conducting yourself properly online and not divulging corporate secrets. You may set a rule centering on client confidentiality, or request silence for a period of time during the pre-IPO process per SEC guidelines. You may do a variety of gentle, indirect things to encourage employees to think harder about how they act and present online — but you can’t completely dictate their presence and posts on their personal networks.

Legal eagles and true HR pros who may be reading this, I’d love your take. Where do you think the gaps in the law do the most harm to applicants? What challenges does social media present for your company?

Disclaimer: As always, views are my own and not to be construed as advice from any current client or employer. This advice has been gleaned from over a decade of having to wrangle these challenges for myself and clients.

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