The digital world has led to widespread uncertainty about what information is considered private or public. From Facebook’s use of personal information, to the woman who was fired for flipping off the presidential motorcade, what was once considered off-limits information is now having its moment in the public eye.
In the workplace, almost everyone has at some point searched for an interviewee’s Facebook profile or scrolled through a coworker’s Twitter feed, but does this behavior cross the line? If you see something you don’t like, are you allowed to act on it?
We spoke with our network of HR professionals about how to avoid the risks of snooping, while still leveraging the advantages of online information. Here are six HR tips for navigating the murky waters of social media:
1. Beware of Unintentional Bias
One of the most important considerations in employment decisions is compliance. Whether influenced by information gathered online or in person, it’s crucial to be alert to any bias or discrimination against a protected class. Though searching for a candidate’s social media profiles may seem harmless, it’s easy to unintentionally gain knowledge beyond what you were looking for. “There is a lot of personal information on social media,” cautions Tyler Cartwright, HR Coordinator at Apcera. “If you’re not careful, that information can lead to implicit bias.”
Even if you have good intentions, you might consider waiting to look at someone’s social media until you screen and interview the candidate in person. Vice President of Artemis Partners, Mike Kalajian advises, “When hiring employees, meet them first—then you can look at their online presence. It’s important to get an unbiased first impression, and then if anything comes to your attention down the line, you can always follow up.”
2. Set Manager Guidelines
Even if HR isn’t looking, how can you be sure that the hiring manager or other interviewers won’t take a peek at a candidate’s social media before making a decision? Sara Hetyonk, Manager of Talent Acquisition & Development at ONTRAPORT, advises HR to “Discourage hiring managers from looking up candidates online. Find other ways to evaluate social engagement, such as through an onsite team exercise. That way the decision won’t be influenced by one thing from their social profile.”
You may be well aware of what you can and can’t ask in an interview, but many employees who will be leading interviews might not be. According to Hetyonk, “Training hiring managers is so essential. Especially new managers who don’t know not to ask something, like if the candidate has any children.” With the right training, employees will be more alert to the risks of encountering protected class information on a candidate’s social profile.
3. Recognize Social vs. Professional Networks
The term “social media” is far more broad-reaching than just Facebook and Twitter. While these platforms tend to be more private, there are a variety of sites that encourage public personal branding. “I think it’s fair to Google someone’s name,” says Kalajian. “LinkedIn, for example is meant to be your public face forward. Social media can be a really positive tool—there are a lot of people who share projects online, which gives you a good idea of their body of work.”
In the hiring process, you can glean a lot of contextualizing information from a candidate’s online presence. “Typically I’ll search final candidates on relevant platforms like LinkedIn and Github,” says Hetyonk. “How active an individual is can tell you a lot about their qualifications. I always look for engineer’s side passion projects or, if a candidate is applying for a role in IT security, I expect to find little to no online presence.”
The internet can be a great way to store and showcase valuable work, portfolios, and more, so be careful not to discount social media entirely. Just proceed with caution.
4. Separate Personal Interests from Ability to Do the Job
Beyond the legal risks of forming opinions about a candidate based on protected class information, it’s important to facilitate a supportive and accepting culture. “In today’s day and age, people put a lot of stuff out there,” says Kalajian. “Looking at someone’s private accounts is like asking to walk through a candidate’s house to look around. Private is private, public is public, and it ultimately comes down to whether or not they can do the job.”
Using social media to assess cultural fit can also be murky territory, as it invites bias into the decision process. “Social media accounts are personal,” cautions Hetyonk. “We have a close-knit team, but when you friend someone, you become privy to their personal views. We provide bullying and harassment training, and we emphasize the importance of respecting other views, including those shared on social media.”
5. Consider a Formal Policy
Social media gets particularly sticky when it comes to existing employees. As HR, an employee may report a colleague’s online behavior. How much can you do with this information? This is where it is useful to have a policy in place to refer to. “We have a social media policy, which basically tells employees not to engage in conduct that adversely affects coworkers, or act as a spokesperson for the company,” says Cartwright.
So what should you do if one employee reports another’s activity on social media? Kalajian shares, “If something is brought to my attention that violates a company policy, I’d talk to the employee directly, get a sense of what he or she is feeling, and explain clearly why it goes against our company values.”
Similarly, Hetyonk recommends, “If someone feels they’re being threatened, HR should step in and talk with them. We respect employees’ personal views, but we do ask that employees be mindful of how they could make someone else feel. We want to make sure people feel secure when they come to work.”