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Social media screening: smart selection or just suspicious snooping?

The debate continues on recruiters using social media to vet new recruits. Although it seems to be reasonably common for recruiters to check social media, is it actually useful? And what about any ethical or legal implications?

Earlier this year, a study by the universities of Northern Illinois, Evansville and Auburn, looked into the possible link between a person's online persona and their behaviour at work.

The study involved a group of subjects completing a "personality test" questionnaire used by companies to measure key personality traits. Three "raters" were given access to the subjects' Facebook profiles which they used to complete a similar questionnaire about the subject. The researchers then calculated scores based on these tests and compared them. They found that the raters' and subjects' scores were similar, indicating that the Facebook profiles gave a reasonably accurate portrayal of the subjects.

Six months later, researchers chose a group of the subjects and asked their supervisors at work to fill in performance evaluations. They discovered that the scores from the supervisors were a close match to what the raters said. This would indicate that a Facebook profile could be fairly accurate in predicting how a person will perform at work, potentially making it a handy resource for recruiters.

That said, in the US there are signs of increasing opposition to employers using invasive tactics when conducting online checks. Following concerns about privacy, the New Jersey state senate passed a bill in October of this year, which bans employers from asking employees or potential employees to hand over log in details for social networking sites.

Under the bill, a worker is also allowed to sue an employer for lost earnings if they lose their job or promotion or if they are not hired because of online snooping.

This shows that the concerns about privacy are real and some organisations have even taken the step of banning staff from using social networking sites as a recruitment tool. A survey by CareerBuilder found that, of those who claimed not to use social media checks, 15% said their organisations had banned the practice.

So is social media screening suspicious snooping or just a smart selection tactic? Remember that in all recruitment practices, fairness and obeying the principles of EEO are paramount and recruiters must take care that their choices do not leave them open to claims of unethical behaviour.

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