Can employers search Facebook and other social-networking sites for information about applicants as part of a background search? This has been the question I’m asked the most when it comes to social media in the employment context. I’ve written about it extensively on this blog for the past 3 years and speak about it regularly to employers in all industries. My short answer is, “Yes, provided you’re searching only publicly available information.” The longer answer involves a procedure that employer should put into place if they decide to conduct a social-media search for potential new employees.
One of the fundamental rules that I suggest is not to request an applicant’s password in order to gain access to their site. There are a number of alternative ways to gain access to the information sought-including requiring candidates to grant your friend request for 24-48 hours. Another option, which is currently being used in the financial sector, is to have the candidate log in to his or her Facebook page during the interview in the presence of the HR professional. There are, however, certain caveats to conducting these searches, but I’ll let you read about them in my previous posts.
The number of reasons to consider using social-media mining during the hiring process are too many to list here. And they differ between industry and job position being sought. Law enforcement officers are an excellent example of this.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently reported the results of a survey of 782 police chiefs and found that more than 1/3 of those surveyed are currently using social-media searches to vet candidates. There are at least two reasons why social-media activity can be so important to law-enforcement employers. First, the wrong kind of postings by law-enforcement officers can undermine the officer’s credibility, thereby compromising an investigation or criminal prosecution. Second, it can undermine the integrity of the police force and damage law enforcement’s reputation within the community. For some disturbing real-life examples of these possibilities, see this prior post on Police Officers Online: Web 2.0 Worries for Public Employers.
Although I appreciate the purposes behind the Police Chief’s decision to search candidate’s social-networking profiles, I do disagree with those police departments who require applicants to turn over their social-networking passwords, especially when there are equally effective alternatives.