Social Media Recruitment: When is it appropriate to check a candidate’s social media activity?

Social media is becoming an increasingly important part of recruitment. 15 years ago no such thing existed. For me, the division is very clear – Facebook for friends, LinkedIn for business, and the two are used very differently. However, Twitter doesn’t have as obvious a place and this caused a huge problem recently for Paris Brown, sacked by Kent Police at the tender age of 17 for comments she had made on her Twitter feed before she was employed by the force.

This is a young girl trying to find her voice in life who wrote something stupid online, probably for reasons best understood by a teenage mindset, and who will forever be held up as an example of why we need to be REALLY CAREFUL about EVERYTHING we say online.

I wouldn’t dream of putting pictures of my kids on LinkedIn, and my friends aren’t particularly interested in my business updates – so where do the two overlap? Margaret Thatcher’s recent passing was barely acknowledged on my Facebook feed, with a notable absence of comments or related activity. One of the most important women in our collective political history and her passing went without much fanfare at all, bar the occasional “RIP”. My friends are far from politically disengaged and represent a very broad social and political spectrum. I was quite looking forward to a healthy debate. So why was there such a howling silence? Could it be that we are now so paranoid about our web footprint that we are less happy to be ourselves?

Fear of reprisal or unintended consequence has a lot to do with it. Our every comment is subject to scrutiny and misunderstanding when taken out of context, with the impact being potentially disastrous. A UKIP candidate was recently accused of making a Nazi salute in a Facebook picture; his defence that he was reaching for something being held by a friend was widely ignored. Whatever the truth of the matter, the reality is that irreparable damage was done by a few people who probably had a politically motivated agenda of their own.  This general mentality is creating a very bland political landscape in which career politicians who have rarely had exposure to the real world are more concerned about how a policy will look to the public and what the reaction will be, rather than whether it is right for the country. In business, we could create toxic environments in which HR is held up as a threat, rather than a support, and for which any comment could be analysed for potentially discriminatory angles at the expense of humour.

What this means is that we must necessarily become more guarded about ourselves. It is irrelevant to bleat that it’s not fair. The nature of the online community is such that it is impossible to be completely private and we should assume that everything we write or post is potentially available to anyone. Once it is online, or sent in an email, we lose control. If a future employer wants to know everything that you have ever said online, it is futile to expect your privacy settings to protect you. Someone, somewhere, will know how to access what you’ve written.

So should employers scrutinise potential employees’ online profiles? Sometimes, absolutely. But there are also lots of other tools that should be utilised first, such as a formal interview and assessment methodology. Vetting social media accounts is incredibly time-consuming and is likely to create reasons not to hire. As a recruiter, it is not something I would choose to do for every appointment. However, for positions that are highly visible and are likely to result in media scrutiny, such as the head of a public body or the new manager for Manchester United, it is relevant. The successful candidate’s views are a reflection of the institution that hires them.

The world has changed and we need to change with it. We have control over what we choose to post. Anyone who’s been involved in an email flame exchange can attest to how easy it is to misread the tone of a purely written exchange. Keep the irreverent comments and jokey asides to verbal communication, with people that you know really well. In today’s society, in which we apparently feel that we have a right not to be offended, what people choose to write and post, as distinct from what others post about them, are as much a part of the interview process as the hour or so a candidate spends in their future employer’s presence.