Facebook and Twitter – take care out there

It might seem prudent, useful and modern to check a job candidate’s social media activities. But would-be employers have to be careful about just how they use online sources of information.

Jane Green

CIPD guidance advises employers to apply the same level of care in avoiding bias when conducting online checks, as they do when conducting face-to-face interviews.

TWO in five employers admit to checking job applicants’ online activity or social media profiles, according to recent research by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD). But the growing practice of using Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn as a recruitment screening tool has faced criticism from some quarters, with calls for employers to adopt practices that are both legal and ethical when using social media content as part of the recruitment process.

In response, the CIPD has issued guidance, designed to provide employers with a much needed steer when encountering difficulties with online pre-recruitment checks. Its Pre-employment checks: an employer’s guide sets out good practice when conducting pre-employment checks on job applicants. A key focus is the use and support of social media when researching candidates’ backgrounds.
In an age where an individual’s social media profile can double up as a de facto electronic CV, it seems employers have finally been given the nod to use that which is publicly available. Using social media to vet candidates is not necessarily unlawful but employers must ensure they balance their interests with those of potential candidates. Prospective employers should ensure that vetting is conducted in such a way that it supports the organisation’s business objectives. A careless approach to screening can lead to employing the wrong people, possibly resulting in damaging business revenue, increasing cost, lowering staff morale and bringing an employer into disrepute.
Significantly, not all information found on the internet is accurate. Responsible employers should give candidates the opportunity to comment on any information discovered from such sources and consider any mitigating factors or explanations before withdrawing an offer.
There are also legal pitfalls and employers must be aware of potential claims of discrimination. In particular, section 39(1) of the Equality Act 2010 makes it clear that protection from discrimination starts during the recruitment process. Therefore, if an organisation obtained information on a candidate’s religious beliefs or sexual orientation via the internet or on a social networking site, and rejected the candidate on that basis, the rejected candidate may be able to bring a successful discrimination claim if the motive behind the rejection became known. While most organisations would provide an alternative reason, this could prove difficult in instances where a candidate subsequently makes a data subject access request, which led to the discovery of an incriminating email.
On the other hand, if a profile is public, checking for racist comments, for example, may be permissible prior to offering the candidate the role.
To combat the danger of discrimination claims being raised, the CIPD guidance advises employers to apply the same level of care in avoiding bias when conducting online checks, as they do when conducting face-to-face interviews.
Employers should keep candidates fully informed of any background checks that may be carried out, to minimise the risk of a data protection legal challenge. It is also important to comply with the Employment Practices Data Protection Code 2002, which has been published by the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Code advises employers to ensure that searches are being directed at establishing the suitability of a candidate for a particular role.
Turning to social media for intelligence on potential candidates should not be used as a free-for-all information gathering exercise. Employers should collect no more personal information than absolutely necessary and not collect data that may be seen as irrelevant or excessive. The CIPD guidance recommends that data collected during the process should not be kept for more than two years where the applicant is not hired.
The role of social media in recruitment is set to gather pace across the food and drink sector. Employers should take the opportunity presented by the new CIPD guidance to develop clear social media policies to support senior management. Such policies and the possibility of facing lengthy and costly tribunal hearings where non-compliance with such guidance is revealed, should continue to ensure employers maintain their distance.