The Five New Rules of Using Social Media to Evaluate Candidates

By Kris Dunn

Jan. 12, 2011

As an HR pro, you’ve had it drilled into your head that, above and beyond all else, you need to be concerned with liability.

After all, there’s liability everywhere, isn’t there? Hiring, firing, promotions, credit checks, performance plans … tell me when to stop.

You know you like it. That’s your job. You’re the HR pro.

All the talk about liability can make HR pros a risk-averse group, so much so that a running joke somewhere in your company goes something like this:

Question: I hate this initiative. How do we guarantee our company will never take action on it?

Answer: Include a member of the HR group on the due diligence team and have them report on the potential discrimination risks. Make sure there’s a formal report that’s distributed to everyone.

That’ll kill it—and kill it good.

Liability is so top of mind that there’s a whole industry dedicated to telling HR pros what can get their companies sued and how to avoid it. Much of that advice is well-intentioned and valuable, but occasionally it feels more like fear mongering.

Translation: There’s one thing the HR police/risk management industry will never evaluate for you: the liability associated with not using your common sense as an HR pro.

Case in point: The current trend of pondering the liability related to viewing the social media accounts of candidates in your recruiting process.

Go to any HR conference these days and you’ll hear speakers waxing poetic about the risks of viewing the social media accounts of candidates in the selection process. It’s the obvious stance when you think about it. You viewed a social media account, saw something you didn’t like and made a hiring decision that had nothing to do with someone’s ability to do the job.

Shame on you if you judge candidates based on what they share via social media, they say.
I say shame on you if you don’t judge candidates based on their profiles.

There’s a new set of rules related to using social media to evaluate whether candidates are the right fit for the job and your company. You can’t afford to be scared; you’ve got a job to do.

Need the CliffsNotes? Here are the five new rules of evaluating candidates using social media:

1. You can’t afford not to Google a candidate and see where the digital trail takes you. Ask your CEO the following question: “Do you expect me to do everything legally at my disposal to ensure the hires we make can do the job and are great fits for our company?” It’s a hypothetical question, because the answer is always yes. Your CEO expects you to deploy all legal measures you can reasonably afford to make sure you’re making great hires. He or she doesn’t want to get sued, but doesn’t want you to be a wallflower. Rule No. 1—maybe the only one you really need to understand—you’re expected to be in the game. You’re an agent of the company, first, last and always.

2. Hiring managers and HR pros are becoming much more tolerant about what they see in a candidate’s social media footprint. The transparency of social media created a bit of a blowback effect in the early days. We never had access to pictures of candidates drinking before, so there was some shortsighted judging going on as a result. Now? We’ve seen enough to remember that people drink socially. As a result, we’re much more tolerant when we find out that a candidate’s not spending weeknights at church. Our threshold for what constitutes a red flag is much higher and more related to whether someone can do the job. That’s a good thing.

3. You don’t give many candidates the real reason they were rejected, and that doesn’t change simply because social media is at play. Unless the candidate in question has a skills gap, most organizations don’t share the real reason for rejection. As a candidate, you had a personality issue and seemed a little angry at the world during the interview process. Did the company provide you with candid feedback? Of course they didn’t. We’re already trained on what not to say that might present liability in the feedback process. Why should questionable pictures or content mined through social media be held to a higher standard?

Stop me when you’ve heard this risk reducer: “We’ve elected to make an offer to a candidate who was a better fit for the role in question.” The statement is true when you don’t think someone can get along with the hiring manager and it’s true when they’ve blasted opinions via social media that most at your company would find objectionable.

4. Privacy settings have eliminated much of the liability related to social media. By far, the biggest risk to your company is digging into a social media account that is intended for nothing but personal use by a candidate. Facebook is the choice of most candidates when it comes to communicating events in their personal lives, and privacy settings now allow a candidate to wall off what they don’t want the world at large to see. As a result, liability has been greatly reduced during the past two years.

5. Evolution means some species don’t advance. You pay your employees to exercise good judgment related to what, with whom and how they communicate. This requirement is on display daily in your company, and when someone shows they can’t do it, you separate them from the mother ship (that’s called termination, folks).

Even though we’ve grown up dramatically related to our reaction to personal details shared via social media, occasionally someone will share something so egregious you know there’s a judgment issue at play in their DNA. That means they don’t get to play in your company at which time you share the talking points detailed in item No. 3.

Your CEO wants you to use all tools available to make the best talent matches possible. The HR risk management industry wants you to be scared.

What should you do? Don’t be scared. Manage the risk and engage.

Workforce Management Online, January 2011Register Now!

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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