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Read This Before You Look Up Your Job Applicant Online

Screening candidates on social media is common—but can leave you open to liability

When you’re curious about a new job applicant, it’s human nature to want to check them out on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are right at your fingertips. What’s the harm in looking?

More than half of employers are already researching candidates on social sites, and the actual number may be even higher. It’s quickly becoming the norm. Here are questions you need to ask before jumping on the cybervetting train.

Are you prepared for information overload?

According to Wendy Stryker, counsel for the law firm Frankfurt Kurnit: “Cybervetting can provide an employer with additional information about a candidate that is not in their resume, but that relates to their membership in a protected class—i.e. religion, race, potential disability, status as a parent, certain legal recreational activities.”

So while you might not know from a resume or an interview that your candidate enjoys legal marijuana, or is thinking of having a baby, those details could be front and center in their tweets or Instagram pics. You have to make sure you’re ready to handle that info when it comes your way, and not let it negatively affect your hiring decisions.

How good are you at overcoming your own biases?

That’s the crux of cybervetting conundrum: You want to find out more about your candidates, but you can’t let it affect your judgment or cause you to reject applicants unfairly.

It’s especially difficult because we all, by nature, tend to overestimate our capacity to overcome our own biases. In general, people tend to think they’re better at staying neutral than they really are.

One landmark study found that female musicians only made up 5 percent of top orchestras when employers knew the gender of their applicants in advance. But, after the implementation of “blind auditions,” during which gender was not revealed, women’s presence in top orchestras dramatically increased 35 percent to 55 percent.

All of which is to say—make double, triple, quadruple sure you that don’t let your biases cloud your hiring judgment.

What do you do if you find a legit reason to reject a candidate?

Sometimes cybervetting turns up a real, legal reason not to hire someone. Even then, Stryker warns that “this can increase the risk of a rejected candidate claiming they were rejected for reasons other than their job qualifications.”

It’s crucial that you have ample evidence to defend your decision in case it is challenged. Stryker recommends you “save any screenshots of social media that is the legitimate basis for an adverse decision, [such as] lack of candor, unprofessional behavior.”

Who should you vet, when and how?

All of this might be enough to dissuade you from cybervetting. But if you still want to do it, there are a few key things to remember.

1. Follow the law. Stryker advises you always conduct your search “in a way that complies with applicable state and federal privacy laws.” Get to know the legal boundaries and ramifications of your area before you jump in.

2. Don’t vet too soon. Wait until after you’ve met with a candidate to look into their social presence. Even better? Wait until you’re ready to present them an offer.

3. Vet everyone equally. “Hiring managers should use cybervetting consistently for all candidates,” Stryker says, so it’s clear you’re not singling out certain people unfairly. For example, if you wait until you’re ready to present an offer to vet someone, you should consistently vet everyone who’s at the offer stage.

4. Document information. If you’re going to reject someone because of something you learned through their social presence, you need screenshots that clearly show your decision isn’t based on discrimination against a protected class.

What if you have questions and you don’t know what to do?

“Anti-discrimination and other employment and privacy laws overlap and also vary state by state,” Stryker says. “Hiring managers should be trained to spot—and thus avoid—potential discrimination issues as they arise in screening, interviewing and hiring. But if a judgment call needs to be made, it would be wise to seek legal counsel.”

If you want to find top caliber new hires who can stand up to even the highest social media scrutiny, head over to the Mediabistro employers page.

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