The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Social Media, Cyberstalking and the Hiring Process

social-media-in-hiring-cupa-hrAt the CUPA-HR Annual Conference and Expo 2016 in Washington, D.C., Maureen De Armond, J.D., associate counsel at Iowa State University, shared with attendees some of the legal and non-legal risks that can arise when those involved in the hiring process try to learn more about applicants from social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or others.

Here’s De Armond’s list of why you should not conduct online searches in the hiring process:

  • Carnegie Mellon University researchers found evidence that sharing personal information via online social networks can lead to hiring discrimination.
  • Another study showed that when candidates disclosed disabilities in cover letters, employers expressed interest 26 percent less often than for candidates that didn’t make such disclosures.
  • Setting a separate bar for potential employees as compared to existing employees with regards to free speech and others issues can be problematic.
  • According to a Pew Internet Project, 27 percent of adults living with disabilities are significantly less likely to go online and Latinos are less likely to be on LinkedIn, creating a potential disparate impact.
  • Information you find online can be potentially misleading, taken out of context or just plain wrong.

De Armond also said that there can be reasons why it may actually be beneficial to do an internet search and review as part of your screening process. Those reasons include discovering:

  • Comments from a candidate of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature that don’t reflect your institutional values
  • Evidence of criminal behavior
  • Comments expressing negative work ethics such as abusing sick leave or other policies
  • Comments bad‐mouthing current and/or former employers
  • Inconsistent information regarding job history, education, degrees, publications, etc.
  • Ulterior motives
  • Bad judgment

So what’s an HR professional in higher ed to do when considering policies and practices on using social media and other online information in the hiring process?

Here are four possible approaches:

  • The Wild West, Do-Nothing Approach
    The seemingly obvious “con” of of the do-nothing approach is that there’s no policy or guidance, which can lead to extreme inconsistencies in practices that are used at your institution. It also creates unfairness in the search and hiring process, and ultimately puts your institution at greatest legal risk.
  • The Complete Ban Approach
    By completely banning the practice of conducting internet searches on candidates, you will be able to create a clear policy but it may only promote the appearance of consistency in hiring practices. What you’ll need to keep in mind is that like other bans throughout history — prohibition, drug use and others — people will still do it regardless of the ban. This leaves your institution with the same potentially unfair practices and legal risk as having no policy at all. In addition, you could miss out on important information about prospective faculty and staff.
  • The Screen-Everyone Approach
    Going to the other extreme, a screen-everyone approach allows you to create a consistent standard, providing clear guidance on how searches and reviews of the results should be conducted. The problem with this approach is that it’s not efficient for most institutions that are continually hiring for various staff and faculty positions across campus. It’s an approach that could also be seen as overly intrusive.
  • The Selective Approach
    The alternative is that you create a policy that clearly outlines when online searches should and should not be used in the hiring process. By defining the positions for which searches are an important element of the process and outlining why those searches are important, you’ll be able to provide clarity around the applicability of the policy and guidance that creates a standard approach for how (and who) will conduct the search and review of information.

The Takeaways?
If you are at the point where you’re ready to create a policy around the use of a candidates’ online information in the hiring process, consider how you can make your policy:

  • Transparent for those using the policy and candidates who are subject to searches
  • Consistent in terms of how searches are conducted and who conducts them
  • Clear on the rationale for the use of searches
  • Detailed with respect to when searches will be conducted and what impact the findings will have on candidates

In addition, you should plan to provide training to those impacted by the policy and be prepared to monitor related state laws.