Social media has been a mixed blessing for people working in HR. LinkedIn, in particular, sometimes seems to have been designed specifically with hirers in mind. Millions of people use LinkedIn as an online CV, complete with endorsements and references from former employers, candidates and customers. Hirers can find high quality candidates from their required industries and verify background information, qualifications and employment details at the drop of a hat. Everyone is a winner; candidates are headhunted more often, clients get access to high-quality staff, advertising costs are slashed and the vetting process is made quick and easy. No wonder that so many hirers have taken to social media, using Facebook and Twitter as well as LinkedIn, is a convenient means of sourcing and vetting candidates.

However, while social media can be a good thing, it also has its dangers, which is why hirers should proceed with caution.

Misrepresenting candidates

The biggest drawback of using social media profiles and online searches to vet candidates is that online information is not always accurate or up-to-date. Google results, for instance can change from minute to minute and do not always give access to the full data available. These are just some of the issues that those hiring could come across when using social media and online searches:

Confused identity: a LinkedIn or Google search could bring up information related to several different people with the same or similar names. This information may or may not be relevant to the candidate.

Variable social media usage: Different candidates use different social media platforms more than others. For instance, not everybody has a LinkedIn profile, and even for those that do, not everyone keeps it up-to-date. Just because references, qualifications and employment history is not featured on LinkedIn, does not mean it hasn’t happened.

Inaccurate data: Online searches bring up a whole trove of information without reference to how accurate it is. Alongside genuinely useful information will be a lot of things which may be partially or wholly inaccurate, or reported in a biased manner.

Discriminatory information: Social media profiles frequently contain information about a person’s gender, race, sexuality, political views and religious beliefs. It is not legal to use this information as the basis for selecting or rejecting a candidate, but knowing these things through social media risks the hirer having an unconscious bias against a candidate.

The last two points bring us on to the largest risks facing hirers when vetting candidates online.

Potential Legal Consequences

When the person hiring researches a candidate via social media, they will naturally use the information they find to pass judgement on their suitability for their client’s position. Using discerning judgement is one of the main roles of a hirer. However, given the limitations of social media, this can lead to an unconscious bias being made against a candidate, due to judgements being made based on personal information.

While social media vetting is not currently illegal, employment lawyers have cautioned that hirers need to ensure they are not using discriminatory factors in making recruitment decisions. If a candidate even suspects that they have been discriminated against due to personal information, then there is a chance they will pursue a discrimination claim, whether or not they have real grounds to do so. It could be an expensive accusation to disprove. Researching candidates through social media therefore opens hirers up to the very real risk of falling foul of discrimination laws.

No substitute for face-to-face meetings

The best means of checking the background of a potential candidate remains face-to-face meetings. In an interview situation, an open dialogue can be engaged between the hirer and candidate that focuses on the key information needed to make a decision on their suitability. Both candidate and hirer are protected from the dangers of unconscious bias and misinformation clouding their judgement.

Of course, social media can still play a role when used properly. Information freely given in an interview can form the base for a factual background search on the Internet, and any cause for concern with the candidate may be followed up through the proper channels.

Tricia Hay

Tricia Hay is Owner, Director of First Base Employment Limited