Six tips to safeguard against breaking the law with social media background checks

Legal experts in the US have suggested that researching a job applicant online is akin to interviewing them and as such could be violating employment and privacy laws. (Picked up via @jdthurber) I’m not sure this issue is being discussed particularly in the UK, either from the employer or the employee perspective. I think clarity on the legalities and liabilities here would be beneficial.

The website touches on the area of social media background checks in the UK, but it seems this is something of a grey area in the law. Any CIPD members or employment law specialists reading this, please do feel free to comment.

I have performed online searches when recruiting into social media focused roles. I would argue looking into the online footprint for a consultant in the digital space is pretty crucial. It is like confirming an author’s credibility by looking up their bibliography.

But is it as relevant for other professions? The example given in the Workforce article of a background check revealing a candidate’s religion, medical history, marital status and recreational habits is a stark example of how a couple of pictures on Facebook could prejudice an employer. That recruiter exposes themselves to accusations of unfair discrimination by performing such a search.

Obviously we all need to take our personal privacy seriously, and consider our online footprint. We can’t trust the Facebooks and Googles of this world to do it for us. If we get disciplined about privacy hopefully Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s stark vision – a digital witness protection scheme if you will – won’t come true; future generations taking on new identities as they enter the workforce in a bid to distance themselves from their less guarded online youth.

But back to today’s environment, where online profiles aren’t locked down and candidates probably do share more information on social networks than they might choose to reveal at an interview, it’s probably wise to err on the side of caution. Here then are my six top tips for selecting fairly on the basis of merit, and for best practice use of social media in recruitment background checks.

  1. Death by detail – ensure you have as full a job description as possible for the vacant role, listing all the critical skills, expertise and experience.
  2. Competency-based, evidence-focused interviewing – draft a standard set of competency -based questions to test and gather evidence against each of the core requirements – and ensure these are used consistently with all candidates.
  3. Online searches aren’t for all – Assess whether an online/social media search is appropriate, relevant and justifiable for the role.
  4. Transparency is key – ask candidates for permission to research their online profiles.
  5. Keep search parameters strict – if you can’t ask a question in an interview, you shouldn’t be looking for the answer online.
  6. Audit trails make for propriety – Keep comprehensive and consistent notes that cover questions asked, searches performed, evidence and information gathered, judgements and decisions made and the rationale for these.
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