Searching a person’s profile on social media has become a common vetting practice. But are there limits to what employers can do with the information they find? As one recent case shows, even posts about ISIS aren’t always a no-no.
It takes less than a minute to search for someone on social media, but whatever rises to the top can have serious implications for their future at a company.
Using the information you find there to influence hiring decisions is part of employee profiling, and it’s becoming common practice. Even a cursory scan of a candidate’s social media profiles returns a lot of information – a level of access that until 10-or-so years ago was unprecedented. Now, we have to ask the question: How much sway should social media hold over hiring decisions?
There are several reasons why an employer would be curious about a potential hire’s online life. Everyone is on their best behaviour during interviews, whereas social media provides a much more candid glimpse into a person’s life.
It also raises red flags. A new study by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology reveals slightly more than a quarter of respondents – a mix of HR professionals and employees – who use profiling say it yields information they later use to reject an applicant. The main reasons are inappropriate photographs, poor use of communication, drug use or associations with certain groups.
It goes without saying that using social media to gauge a prospective employee’s age, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation is prohibited. But concerns about the validity of information, its fairness, and the blurred line between private and public life are also major concerns. How far can employers test the boundary?
According to the QUT survey, some take it pretty far: about one in 15 Australians have been asked by an employer to provide logins for personal social media accounts. This is a contentious practice, and has even been banned in some places.
Although you might think there is nothing wrong with a little browsing, employers do need to be careful about how they use the information they find online. Last week, a Perth Airport baggage handler was awarded compensation by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) after it ruled he was unfairly sacked for making ‘extremist’ social media posts that purportedly sympathised with terrorist groups – specifically ISIS.
Aerocare Flight Support, the company in question, gave evidence that the employee was promoting extremism. It also stated that he had violated the company’s social media policy and threatened its reputation – a fair call given that their work is carried out at airports and his role meant he had a security clearance card.
However, the issue enters uncertain territory as the investigation goes on. The employee maintains he was only joking, and he kept his personal and work life separate by using an alias and never identifying himself as an Aerocare employee.
The commissioner who awarded him compensation says that the employer only scratched the surface of his Facebook feed during the investigation – a rare instance where more digging into a profile might have cleared someone, rather than implicate them. However, the commissioner did acknowledge his posts in support for ISIS were in poor taste, regardless of intent.
As time goes on, we’re likely to see more cases like this crop up, and there is no clear-cut answer about the best approach to social media in recruitment. A majority of respondents to the QUT survey agreed that employees have the right to their own online identity, matched by 45 per cent saying employers are within their rights to search for personal information about current employees.
The challenge from now is to balance employer requirements for selecting workers with ensuring safe and private online spaces for employees.