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Sean McPheat


Founder And Managing Director

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How to guard against corporate social media discrimination


Corporate social media discrimination is becoming an increasingly tricky issue to deal with and HR is finding itself at the forefront of the struggle – often without having the necessary defences in place.

Corporate social media discrimination refers to situations where employers use social networking sites such as Facebook to undertake research about a candidate’s background either prior to or during the interview process. The aim is to understand more about each applicant before taking a decision to hire them or not.
But the challenges involved in not overstepping the mark in this regard are only set to mount as social media usage continues to grow. Ten years ago, the channel was merely a pipe dream, with one or two very basic sites such as Six Degrees and Friendster acting as the vanguard.
Today, nearly everyone you meet has a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account, with some people even having their own blog, Flickr and YouTube accounts as well.
Here are some facts and figures:
  • Users spend more than 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook, according to the social networking site’s press office
  • Twitter gets more than 300,000 new subscribers every day, it was revealed at the annual Twitter developer’s event, The Chirp Conference
  • A new member joins LinkedIn every second, the organisation’s press office claims.
When you look at such numbers, it becomes clear just how important social media has become in today’s society. And the same is just as true in the world of work as workers progressively realise how important it is to be connected to others and how useful being online can be for networking purposes.
But with so many people posting personal, and sometimes sensitive, content about themselves on social networking sites, issues around corporate social media discrimination have started to arise.
Although there is nothing wrong with wanting to know more about potential job candidates, HR professionals must be very careful about the type of information that they gather and for what reasons. If they get it wrong and end up being accused of using such information against an applicant during the interview process, they could end up being subject to very real and costly damages.
This is because certain information is protected by law, which means that it cannot be used during the recruitment process.
Protected classes of data include:
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race/colour
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Genetic information
  • Pregnancy
This means that, should an employer gain access to a given candidate’s Facebook page at any stage during the interview process and find out that she is 20 weeks pregnant, for example, they would legally not be able to use this information as a reason for not hiring her.
Although discrimination has always been a difficult issue for HR, social media opens up a whole new front in the struggle. A recent survey conducted by SysComm International indicated that four out of five companies now use LinkedIn as a recruitment tool, which means that it is a growing minefield – for all business sectors.
One of the most challenging issues is that corporate social media discrimination is hard to prove or disprove, which can lead to employment tribunals becoming involved in order to try and discover the truth of the situation.
So what can HR do to avoid this situation and ensure that social media tools to access and use information are employed appropriately and lawfully during the hiring process?
The only real answer is to ensure that everyone involved in the recruitment activity is fully trained and educated on the legislation, what it comprises and how they can avoid breaking it in order to save the company from costly discrimination lawsuits.
Appropriate training and procedures
Recruiters, whether internal or external, should also be aware of the organisation’s social media policy and know exactly where it stands on any issue relating to social media usage during the hiring process.
HR departments would likewise be well advised to create guidelines for appropriate behaviour as well as a standard checklist of items that decision-makers are allowed to look for and where. Keeping records of the information collected from such searches is also a good idea to act as a safeguard should accusations emerge later.
Another tip, meanwhile, is to appoint a third-party – they can be either internal or based at a recruitment agency – who has no responsibility for hiring decisions in order to undertake research, based on the guidelines and checklist, about candidates during different stages of the interview process.
This third-party must be aware of what categorising information into protected classes means and understand its importance, however, in order to ensure that decision makers do not inadvertently receive inappropriate information about job applicants.    
HR directors must also be proactive in keeping both themselves and their colleagues up-to-date on all pertinent court rulings and potential liabilities that may emerge over time. The idea is that knowledge is power – the more you know about the subject, the more certain you can be that you are following the correct procedures.
Corporate social media discrimination is a major up-and-coming issue for the HR profession to tackle, but problems can easily be avoided by ensuring that the right training and procedures are put in place from the outset.
Sean McPheat is founder and managing director of HR consultancy, MTD HR.

One Response

  1. Social media discrimination

    I think, in this case, social media should not be used at all during the recruitment process.  Safest bet all round then.  We managed before it came along, we’ll manage without it 

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Sean McPheat

Founder And Managing Director

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