Wednesday, 14 December 2011

More Questions on Social Media and Employers

There is still some controversy and much uncertainty surrounding employers vetoing candidates based on their social networking profile. It is generally considered that a person's Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ account is off limits, and that no employer, potential or otherwise, has any right of access to what is considered a personal domain. Yet, from a lay person's point of view the law seems to be somewhat unclear on this issue, so let us consider it carefully.

As far as can be determined there is no law either prohibiting or allowing employers to access an employee's (or potential) social networking page. This means that an employer has a right to ask but is not necessarily entitled access to a person's social networking account. In the case of existing employees, with whom extensive interviews, references, and (for sensitive roles) background checks have led to their acceptance in the role, this would seem less of an issue. The real concern is when employers want to make a hiring decision based on the contents of a candidate's Facebook page or Twitter stream. It seems there is a genuine fear of potential employers learning about a candidate's partying habits, political affiliations, a few embarrassing photos, or possibly an admission to acts bordering on criminal or certainly anti-social that might influence their decision. So is there anything wrong with potential employers glancing at our social media accounts to get a more rounded picture of the person they are entrusting a job to? Well, yes and no.

Some roles do contractually place their employees under certain restricted behaviour, beyond the workplace, depending on the nature of the work involved. Any employer working in a profession/market dealing with sensitive matters such as law, finance or intelligence and defence departments of the government would need some reassurance that a potential employee can be trusted. If a candidate has a tendency to talk openly on the web in detail about their job thus revealing protected information, or whose behaviour compromises the sensitivity of the role they are entrusted, any employer would want to know. Surely employers should be allowed to view any information, not normally included on a CV or disclosed during interview, as a precaution to safeguard their interests in making sure they can hire the right person for the job.

There is an argument against employer access to social media accounts on the grounds of privacy principles. Yet many argue that social media is actually not protected by privacy laws.  Twitter hashtags, unsecured Facebook and Google + status streams are largely in public domain. In fact, in his article Should Social Media Determine Your Employment Status  Jeremy Simmons argues since the aim of social media is to convey personal information to an ever increasing circle of friends, family, and followers, it can hardly be considered private. He states; "It is not called 'private media' but 'social media', arguing that with some social media users whose circle of followers are equal to the population of a small village it is difficult to maintain any semblance of privacy. So it follows that when requested by an employer for access to their social media accounts, those who refused could be hard pressed to base it on privacy.

However, the privacy argument is far from defeated. It is true to an extent that a large social circle on Facebook, et al could negate the privacy factor however users have the option to determine with whom information is shared. Facebook allows users to choose which list to direct information to, Google+ has its circles, and Twitter gives users the option to protect tweets or use direct messaging. By only sharing information with select groups, privacy is maintained within that circle of trust. It is worth noting that employers cannot discriminate employees and recruits on the grounds of age, race, religion, nationality, handicap, or marital status. Much of this information should be provided although religion and race are not required disclosures, so an employer having access to information deemed confidential could leave themselves liable to legal action if it is successful shown that such undisclosed information, later uncovered, affected the decision of that candidate's employment. 

Employers can get a fuller picture of a potential employee based on their social networking posts. However, aside from the fact that any such access would have to be approved, a user can always clean up their profile to make it more acceptable before giving access. That said, using social media to determine the suitability of a candidate based on their personal life is drifting dangerously close to invasion of privacy. Whether a person has ten friends & followers, or thousands, this does not constitute an implied surrender of the right to privacy. 

An employer has every right to concerned about a potential employee's outside activities affecting or compromising their business. However such suspicions cannot surely be accurately determined just because someone enjoys a heavy night drinking or might express frustrations in their current job, or even have less than savoury political views, has little bearing on their potential to be good workers. Employment should simply be based on qualifications, experience and references, and not personal activities that may or may not put a business into disrepute, since the process already settles this. The issue of employers demanding access to candidates' social media profiles remains a controversial one lacking some legal uncertainties and setting a concerning precedent over the fine line between the much coveted work/life balance.

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