Looking at Social Media From the Employer's Perspective
By Joe Bontke
Social media has become the major form of communication for a large portion of the population and even a larger percentage of people are “dabbling” in it. According to the Pew Research Center, as of January 2014, 74% of adults use social networking sites. Look around your career counseling office today. Your administrator is tweeting, the front-line clerical staff is on Facebook (with a billion others), and many employers are online scoping out the local competition to see what they are doing. We are a plugged-in, online, smartphone society with unlimited information at our fingertips.
Although professionally I work on employment discrimination issues, I offer only my personal opinion here and a few words of caution about the “electronic footprints” we are all leaving behind every time we post online.
Using the Internet to Learn about Job Applicants
Any employer who has ever had a bad hiring experience, may have thought, “What were we thinking when we hired that person?” The Internet might seem to be a great way to learn more about the applicant's likes, experience, activities, writing and so much more than could ever be learned during an interview. On the other hand, an Internet search may also show personal details that could indicate a lack of professionalism, immaturity, or use of inappropriate or discriminatory language on a social network page.
However tempting the Internet search may sound, there are some big problems with turning to the Internet for information in an open-ended fashion. The first problem is accuracy – or the lack thereof. If the applicant has an uncommon name like I do, an Internet search will probably identify the person correctly (unless he has a mystery double somewhere). However, it is still possible that false information could be posted about me for some reason. My wife of 31 years, Joyce Smith, would have another problem if you searched her name on the Internet. You would have a hard time identifying the same, wonderful “Joyce Smith” I married. The Internet search results for “Joyce Smith” are likely to list several women by this name and, as an employer, you may not be certain which person is your applicant. If another “Joyce Smith” say of Ohio, posted photos of herself drunk at a party, you might screen Joyce Smith out and then miss a fabulous employee – such as my wife, and possibly even the Joyce Smith of Ohio, who may be a reasonably good employee if the photo was an old picture, or if it was posted as a prank, or if it did not actually show the other “Joyce Smith” of Ohio, but still another “Joyce Smith”). An Internet search of applicants may be more trouble than it is worth.
Another risk of a quick Internet search is that it may be too easy to react quickly or superficially to information – especially to photographs – in ways the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws tell us not to. See the EEOC’s website, “Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices” under the section on Pre-Employment Inquiries at http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/practices/
Employees or applicants are told “not to put your picture on a resume” for obvious reasons. “He looks too old,” “She appears to be foreign born,” “We have never had one of those people working here,” or “She uses a wheelchair, so she will be unreliable,” are all examples of the thoughts or comments that we may not want to have, but that still may be elicited in an unguarded reaction to an online photograph. And if these thoughts make their way into an employment decision, you could run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Case Example of Negative Social Media
The proverbial poster child on the perils of the Internet search from the applicant’s perspective may be Stacey Snyder. While she was a teacher in training at a Pennsylvania high school, Snyder posted a photo on her social media page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” Her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of the college where Snyder was enrolled said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. Days before Snyder was scheduled to graduate, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her legal after-hours behavior. A federal district judge rejected the claim (Snyder v. Millersville Univ., et al. 2008 WL 5093140 (E.D. PA. Dec. 3, 2008), because, he said, since Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.
Proper Use of the Internet
Internet searches can complement the more traditional job recruitment methods, but employers have a responsibility to avoid improper use of the Internet or social media tools in making employment decisions based on an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, disability or genetic information. Evaluate the information you’ve collected from credible sources, and speak with the applicant if you need clarification. Involve more than one person in the decision, and avoid unintentional assumptions or stereotypes that might lead to making a discriminatory employment decision. In the end, your employment decision should be made based on the job requirements and not on assumptions or stereotypes. The Internet can be a helpful tool -- if used cautiously.
To applicants I offer a simple message: Be professional, kind, discreet, and authentic. Most importantly, keep in mind that the message you are sending will reach many other professionals like you. Be sure of what you’re posting before you hit “tweet.”
Joe Bontke, M.Ed, is the outreach manager and ombudsman for the Houston District office of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Joe has been in the field of Human Resources & Civil Rights for the past 27 years and has experience in employment law and adult education. JOE.BONTKE@EEOC.GOV