I keep seeing articles about how information from individuals’ social media posts can be helpful in making hiring decisions. Every time I see it, I cringe a little and wanted to share my reasons why. Let’s talk about the most common way that social media is used in the selection process - hiring managers peruse social media pages of candidates looking for any kind of information or behavior that could lead them to conclude that their candidate would be a poor hire.
A survey by careerbuilder.com states that 51% of the employers surveyed found information on social media that caused them to NOT hire a candidate. The article lists reasons ranging from posting provocative photos and drinking/drug use, to a general unprofessional image. On the surface, these might sound like good reasons to pass over a candidate, but let’s look at how this fits into selection best practices.
When a piece of information is learned from social media and that information is used to make a decision about that candidate, you have now used social media as a step or hurdle in the hiring process and it is subject to the same scrutiny as other decision-making tools. When it comes to selection processes, consistency is the key. If social media is an official hurdle in the selection process, then all candidates who make it to that stage are held to the same standards and criteria.
So let’s say you have whittled your applicant pool down to three final candidates and you want to look at social media information on these candidates. You find out that candidate 1 has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. All of candidate 1’s information is public and available. You find only a Facebook account for candidate 2 and most of the information is private. Candidate 3 has no social media accounts at all for you to review. You have a lot of information to review for candidate 1, a little information to review on candidate 2 and no information to review on candidate 3. Unless you “require” your candidates to provide access to their social media accounts as part of the process (which I would have concerns about as well) you are relying on the information made public by the candidate.
Let’s add to the mix that research has shown that there are age and gender differences (Correa, Hinsley, & de Zúñiga, 2010; Lenhart, 2009; Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010) with regard to social media use. Younger candidates are more likely to use social media. Compared to women, men are more likely to have a profile on LinkedIn but less likely to have a profile on Facebook. So, you have an inconsistent supply of information from different sources of social media that could lead to unfair treatment of a protected class – just because that class is more likely to use social media. Even if you did have comparable information to review on all candidates, it’s doubtful that valid evaluation criteria have been established to lead to consistent decision making based on social media information so that every individual who makes a social media faux pas is treated exactly the same way.
With all that said, social media does not provide reliable and consistent information on all of your candidates. If you are going to use a tool to make a hiring decision, EEOC guidelines say that it must be reliable and valid. Collecting inconsistent information on your candidates, that might differ across protected classes, and applying inconsistent standards to that information violates best selection practices and not only decreases the accuracy of the selection process, but opens your process up to legal scrutiny. Next, let’s discuss the job relevancy of the information gleaned from social media.
Let’s assume you feel comfortable looking at social media information on your candidates. It’s exceptionally important that the information you learn about the candidates and use to make a screen out decision is job relevant. Using an example from the careerbuilder.com survey, drinking alcohol is not an illegal act and if a candidate chooses to drink alcohol when they are not performing their job duties, this should not be used to draw any inferences about the individual and his/her ability to perform the job.
Like it or not, if you were to use social media to evaluate alcoholism or make inferences based on alcohol use, the EEOC could criticize your process as having a pre-offer medical examination and consider you in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Social media, by its nature, is going to provide you personal information about candidates that you could unintentionally use that is not related to candidates’ qualifications. Facebook pages, for example, can tell you a lot about a person’s age, race, and gender. It can divulge their religious affiliation and beliefs on certain topics (e.g., guns or abortion). You can learn about their family situation – if they have children, are they married, are they trying to get pregnant. Unless this information is job relevant and speaks to their ability to perform in the target role, it cannot legally be used in making a hiring decision.
We all have unconscious biases that come into play when we make decisions, being privy to personal, not job-related information, can seep into our consciousness and affect our judgment without our knowledge. In recent years, a lot of efforts have been taken to reduce the likelihood of learning about characteristics related to protected classes until late in the selection process. Adding social media to your process opens the door to a plethora of personal information.
Remember, when you are called to defend your employment decisions in court, it is unlike every other aspect of our legal system. The burden of proof is not on the shoulders of the accuser; rather, the organization has to PROVE that protected class information (e.g., age, race, gender) was not used in the hiring decision. Consequently, using tools, like social media, that have this kind of information readily available is risky business. You need to be able to provide compelling evidence that you in NO WAY used those data to inform your decision. This can be hard to do.
In sum, even though social media information is often easily at our fingertips and it can provide a unique glimpse into the personal lives of candidates, using that information for decision-making purposes may not be wise. I am a human resource consultant, not an employment lawyer, but, to me, the risks seem to outweigh the benefits. When it comes to social media, I would advise that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.