Job applicants and social media: Employers take 'eyes wide shut' approach

Linked In
Many job seekers use networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to find job connections. One recruiter said she avoids applicants' social media sites but consults LinkedIn because it is largely used for professional purposes.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

In today's sluggish economy, job candidates might be nervous about efforts by potential employers to look for them on social networking websites like Facebook or Twitter.

Unless job applicants have strict settings on their social media accounts, they may broadcast revealing details about their lives, including their drinking habits, political views, weight, race and marital status.

Such information makes some employers nervous. They would rather avert their eyes.

"People could post on someone's wall, 'Hey, you were really wild at the party last night, it was great!'" said Sue Melrose, senior recruiter for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans in Minneapolis. "I feel pretty clear as a recruiter: I do not want to know!"

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Melrose and her colleagues avoid social media sites, but they have decided that the networking site LinkedIn is an appropriate resource as it is largely used for professional purposes.

Beyond that, Melrose and her colleagues rely on applicants' resumes and performance in interviews -- not on their Facebook pages.

"It's really about the ethical, the fair thing," she said. "You look solely at their skills and experience and ability to do the job."

Sue Melrose
Sue Melrose, senior recruiter at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans in Minneapolis, says she and her colleagues rely on applicants' resumes and performance in interviews, not on their Facebook pages. "You look solely at their skills and experience and ability to do the job," she said.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Legally, that is the safe way to play it, said Teresa Thompson, an employment lawyer at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis. Probing deeper into someone's online existence can cause trouble.

"You're going to get information maybe you shouldn't get when making hiring decisions," Thompson said.

The information might include learning that an applicant is pregnant. A couple of years ago, Thompson cautioned a group of employers about the perils of using Google to find information on a candidate. At the time, she was pregnant.

"I stood out from behind the podium and turned sideways, baring my stomach to the world, which was frightening, and I said, 'If you had to choose between me at nine months pregnant and an equally qualified person, who would you choose?'" Thompson recalled. "And everyone in the room hung their head and looked down."

It might be difficult for a pregnant job candidate who is not hired to prove discrimination. But if someone sued, Thompson said, an employer would have to admit to using Google to learn more about the candidate they spurned.

"And then," Thompson said, "the question would come out: 'Then is that the reason?'"

Joel Schroeder, an employment attorney with Minneapolis firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, tells employers they may use social media to screen applicants. But they need to have a good business reason for doing so, he said.

"If you work for the American Lung Association, smoking might not be a good thing, and it would probably be OK to take that into consideration when hiring," Schroeder said. "But for a large company or a law firm or MPR, it would be a problem."

Schroeder noted that many states, including Minnesota, have laws that prohibit discrimination against lawful activities.

Thompson and Schroeder were unaware of lawsuits alleging that a company's use of social media harmed a job applicant. But companies are taking action to avoid such lawsuits.

Some hire an outside company, such as Social Intelligence or Sterling, to conduct the social media research for them. Others delegate the research to an employee who is not part of the hiring process.

Third parties would then delete from their reports on job candidates any legally sensitive information, like race or age.

That kind of approach may help avoid lawsuits, but it could harm the recruiting process, said Jason Averbook, chief business innovation officer at Appirio, a company that counsels businesses on talent management.

Recruiters and hiring managers need to worry about finding the talent and not obsess over the problems that could come up during the search, Averbook said.

"Do I focus on those 'coulds' and not do it?" he asked. "Or do I focus on the things that are truly going to get me the best people, and deal with the 'coulds' as an exception?"

Averbook said employers in sectors like information technology cannot wall themselves off from social media. They need those avenues to identify talented workers they can poach from other companies. That's because the workers they need aren't seeking new jobs.

Melrose, the cautious recruiter at Thrivent, understands that approach. She said if it becomes harder to find the right people to fill positions at Thrivent, her strategies may need to shift.

"That may change how we need to think about our sourcing and have social media be a more integral part of what we do," she said.

Until then, Melrose is holding to the principles she values herself. Job candidates' private lives are just that: private.