Social media screening: what information can you use?

Social media buttons on iPhone
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Steve Smith
Vice President Sales (UK, Ireland & EMEA)
Sterling Talent Solutions
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Social media has revolutionised the way we engage with each other and exchange information. The figures speak for themselves. According to We Are Social, there are 38 million active social media users in the UK – that’s over half the total population – while 84% of UK millennials take part in social media activities every single day.

We could never have anticipated these kinds of statistics 20 years ago, yet here we are. Social media is part of our everyday lives and is playing an increasingly significant role in HR, especially during the recruitment process.

A report by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that 56% of recruiters say some of their best candidates are sourced via social media, while 90% use social media to vet candidates before an interview.

HR can use social media to attract the right candidates, engage with them during the recruitment process, and promote the employer brand.

“It can be a really powerful method for employees to bring to life the positive experience they have working for an organisation and get potential employees excited about the prospect of joining,” remarks David D’Souza, Head of London at the CIPD.

“People are sharing more and more about their thoughts and habits online – HR has long aimed to get better at thinking about the ‘whole person’ at  hiring stage and it would seem logical that having more information about people would allow us to make better choices.”

Social media: delivering depth of insight

Social media can also offer a depth of insight into a person’s personality, preferences and interests that can’t always be gained from a CV or interview.

“The traditional recruitment journey has tended to rely on both the organisation and the individual making selective disclosures of information that they believe would impress,” comments D’Souza. “Now, more information is available for the candidate and the organisation than ever before, and there are obvious benefits to the transparency that can be gained through appropriate use of social media.”

Aside from using social media to source good people, HR can use it as part of their screening process. Social media screening captures a candidate’s activity on the internet that could reveal both positive and negative information about them.

One of the key benefits of social media screening is that it can help you to avoid making a hiring mistake by uncovering anti-social, illegal or violent behaviour that you’re unlikely to identify from an interview. Experts have estimated the cost of a bad hire to be between four to 15 times the annual salary, so using social media in this way could save your business a huge amount of money.

However, whilst there are advantages to social media screening, some employers are still treading carefully. A poll carried out in Sterling Talent Solutions’ webinar earlier this year found that many HR folk are a little nervous about using social media to screen candidates. This could be because there is still confusion about what employers can and can’t do when making hiring decisions based on information found on social networks, as well as concern about the legal risks if they get it wrong.

Research by Monster.co.uk and YouGov revealed that 36% of UK employers have rejected a candidate based on their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn profiles, while more than half of UK HR professionals admit that a candidate’s online reputation can influence their decision to hire them.

Do you know what information from social you're allowed to use?

Yet this is where the challenge lies. If you are carrying out social media searches in your organisation, it’s crucial you have a strong grasp of what information you are allowed to use to influence hiring decisions, if you don’t want to leave your business open to risk.

One of the main ways employers can put themselves at risk is to make a hiring decision based on a ‘protected characteristic’, including age, disability, gender reassignment, marital status, race, religious beliefs, and sex or sexual orientation.  Social media can reveal a greater depth of insight into a candidate’s behaviour that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.

However, if you decide not to recruit someone based on any of the aforementioned characteristics, it could be grounds for discrimination or data protection claims.

“A potential employee could bring a claim for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010,” explains Barry Ross, senior associate at Crossland Employment Solicitors. “If successful, they could be awarded damages for loss of earnings, as well as a separate injury to feelings award too. There is no limit on the amount of damages that could be awarded, so if an individual is unsuccessful in securing another job for two years, despite making every effort to apply for work and mitigate their loss, the potential liabilities are high.”

You could also be at risk of liability if, for example, you see comments boasting of violence online, yet choose to ignore it and hire the individual anyway, only for there to be workplace violence issue further down the line.

Employers must also comply with the UK Data Protection Act and the Employment Practices Code by ensuring that social media searches exclude non-user generated content, sensitive personal data and all protected characteristics. In addition, candidates must be informed if a social media or other online source is used to research information that could affect their application.

Information must be relevant to the offer of employment

Essentially, hiring decisions should only be made based on information found that is relevant to the offer of employment. “Overall, if the information reveals the candidate is not dedicated to their work, they are unprofessional or perhaps discriminatory themselves, then it is something that can be taken into account,” advises Ross.

HR must also own the process as much as possible to ensure hiring managers – who may not appreciate compliance in quite the same way – don’t unintentionally tread on dangerous ground.

Ross recommends HR makes hiring managers aware of what constitutes a protected characteristic. “Businesses should look to provide training on the Equality Act, ensure that they have appropriate equality policies and look to produce guidance notes to assist any recruiting manager,” he adds.

Social media screening is a complex area, so if there’s any doubt, it would be wise to outsource to a third party, who would focus on relevant information only and look for information on candidate behaviour that is, for instance, unlawful, violent, racist or intolerant.

An independent third party would typically offer two types of checks – a character and a reputation search – and would use a combination of technology and trained analysts to identify and review user-generated content from anywhere on the internet. This could save you time and money and mitigate risk associated with social media screening.

Outsourcing can offer HR the expertise that can support internal capability, adds D’Souza.

“For sensitive topics such as this, creating clear barriers between vetting and decision-making can be beneficial in making independence of decision-making clear. If the goals of your recruitment process include not being biased and being demonstrably objective, then having an independent, expert third party involved could be of benefit.”

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