All’s Fair in Love and LinkedIn

Last spring I gave a presentation on social media and employment to about 100 people with hiring responsibilities. Wanting to get to know my audience, I asked a few questions. “How many of you use Facebook?” “Who has a LinkedIn profile?” “Anyone use Twitter?” I then moved on to the most important question, “How many of you use social-media accounts to screen candidates for employment?” With the exception of a guy from a background checking company, no one raised a hand. “Yeah, like I believe that,” I said to the group.

This business of using social media to check the backgrounds of employment candidates is pretty controversial stuff. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has warned about the potential for making biased decisions after checking social-media sites, and I’ve heard more than my fair share of employment attorneys proclaim that they should be off limits to hiring authorities and search committees, declarations that prompt me to wonder what universe they are living in. Likewise, I’ve heard candidates argue that what they post on their own sites is private and should never be evaluated by hiring officials. I find these positions astounding. Aren’t hiring authorities responsible for thoroughly evaluating candidates? Are we supposed to believe that candidates who demonstrate poor judgment online should be held harmless at all times?

One woman mentioned her distress at doing a Google search on a top finalist for a very senior position and finding a non-password-protected collection of photos of the finalist’s wife in her underwear. Apparently the finalist thought it would be fun to document his wife’s pregnancy by taking side-view photos of her for 35 weeks. “Are you sure it was really your candidate?” I asked. “I worried about that,” she responded, “but then we recognized his face from the nude photos of him participating in the underwater birth.”

This woman did something I always recommend: verify that the content you have uncovered truly belongs to your candidate. Here are some other practices to consider:

  1. Notify candidates that you will be conducting a comprehensive Internet search that includes social-media sites.
  2. Provide candidates with an opportunity to address issues related to identity and negative information. There is more than one Allison Vaillancourt on Facebook, and most of them seem to be having a lot more fun than I am. Make sure you have the right person before making judgments.
  3. Invite candidates to let you know about Internet content that may be inaccurate.
  4. Compare LinkedIn content to the candidate’s CV. Be nervous if the LinkedIn profile appears to exaggerate real experience or accomplishments.
  5. Be cognizant of the potential for discrimination or bias.
  6. Consider the nexus between the information you uncover and its relationship to the job. Underwater Birth Man was vying for an information-security position and the search team worried that he might not be a stellar role model.
  7. Pay attention to blog content. Should you hire someone who regularly rants about the inferiority of women, you can bet it will surface as Exhibit A if he is later charged with discrimination or sexual harassment.
  8. Be ethical. I hope most of us would agree that “friending” a candidate or one of the candidate’s friends in order to access personal information on Facebook is just plain sleazy.
  9. Does your institution have a protocol for evaluating candidates’ social-media content? Do you buy the argument that search committees have no right to consider Flickr photos, blogs or Twitter postings when making screening decisions?

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