Good employers always conduct a reference check to determine whether to hire a candidate.  With the world of online communications, however, how far should an employer go when researching the background of a potential candidate?  At what point does that legitimate research become inappropriate snooping into a person’s private life?

I posted on the topic of social media in the workplace last February, and continue to get questions about what social media information an employer can use.

It’s Good Practice to Do a Social Check

Doing some amount of a social check on a candidate is a good practice.  You want to know if your candidate is publicly racist, overly opinionated about his supervisors, or parties a little too hard on a school night.  A basic Google search will pull up most of the LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or blogging presence.  It’s free and not overly time consuming.  If nothing else, it will provide a glimpse into the candidates’ general judgment on public comments.

Leave it to the Experts?

Companies are now starting to pop up that specialize in gathering social media and online information about candidates.  One US example that has been in the news lately is Social Intelligence.  While the extent of online information it can dig up has led some to question whether it is going to far, it does appear to remain within legal parameters.  As discussed on the Workplace Privacy Blog, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission recently indicated that “employers that rely on a social check service, like Social Intelligence, to search social media for information about job candidates must comply with the Federal Credit Reporting Act.”.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, Social Intelligence does comply, presumably giving the green light to other similar companies.

In its Factsheet on Privacy and Social Media in the Workplace, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada does not reject the use of social media resources for employment purposes, but does warn that employers should not use the information in a discriminatory manner towards potential candidates.  For example, if you see that a candidate “Likes” a page on mental health issues, the CNIB or a women’s rights organization, it could be discrimination to pass the candidate over on that basis.  This falls in line with the various Canadian human right commission policies on discrimination in the workplace.

Of course, most employers would not expressly admit that they are not hiring a candidate because of the person’s race, gender, or perceived disability, but there is no doubt that the information gathered in a social check would influence a hiring decision.  That is the point of the reference check, after all.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The problem with a social check is whether you can rely on the information you dig up.  A general rule I have is that if the employee wrote the information him or herself, you’re probably good to go.  If they were drunk when they sent out that tweet, then, well, perhaps they should have thought twice – the old “don’t drink and dial” rule is transferable to the online world.

While employers will want to pause to ensure the information is actually posted by the person (as opposed to posted by someone else on their Facebook wall), I say that that information is probably fair game for an employer to take into consideration (with all the usual caveats about not relying on information in a discriminatory manner).

If, however, the information is posted by another person about the candidate, then employers should pause to consider the weight of the information.  Is the information posted by a bitter ex-spouse?  An angry teenage daughter?  A drunk friend who thought it was funny at the time?  Whether a deliberately false statement or an innocently incorrect one, social media checks need to proceed with caution to ensure any employment decisions are based on hard facts, not one or two potentially incorrect or “funny-at-the-time” comments.

Sidenote: The Social Checks Can Bite You Back

As a side note to employers:  the social check can work both ways.  On Bob Sutton’s Work Matters blog, he lays out a checklist for candidates to determine if their future employer will be a “bosshole“.  Potential candidates can now dig for that kind of information online and equip themselves with far more information than a few years ago.