The risks of online recruiting

managing online recruitingWithout proper policies & practices, using social media tools for job recruitment can be a human resources—and legal—nightmare

While the use of social media likely is one of the most talked-about issues of the 21st century and it would seem that anything social media related is on the upswing, that’s not necessarily the case in human resources circles.

In fact, in at least one notable instance—recruitment—the use of social media is on the decline.

The reasons for this vary, but one factor is the potential risk for companies that don’t have the right policies and practices in place—and that often fail to properly educate and train hiring managers and other representatives to use these tools appropriately.

A 2011 survey on the use of social networking in recruitment conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest human resource management association, indicated that 26% of companies were using online search engines to screen job candidates during the hiring process. That’s a decline from 2008 when 34% were using those methods. In addition, almost two-thirds reported they had never used online search engines to screen job candidates or that they had in the past but no longer do so.

Is your company using social media to find or screen job candidates? Do you have policies in place to guide that activity? Are you confident that your management staff and others who may influence hiring decisions are acting appropriately in support of your policies?

From the search side

While social media as a screening tool isn’t widely used (or its use isn’t widely reported), there are a couple of online options that have been widely embraced by recruiters and HR professionals: corporate websites and LinkedIn. These tools have, in fact, supplanted what used to be a popular option for both job seekers and companies looking for new staff—job boards.

Sandy Charet, a professional recruiter and principal of Charet & Associates, an executive search firm based in Cresskill, N.J., says that her firm’s use of job boards has dropped dramatically in recent years.

“Most often the cream of the crop is not looking online for a job,” she says. “My clients want the best candidates whether they’re currently working or not—so the best candidates are not found that way.”

Another problem with the online environment, she notes, is that there is just too much to wade through.

“Years ago, you had to print your resume and pay for postage to answer a job ad. Now, you just hit ‘Enter’. ” The problem, she says, is that about 90% of the people hitting “Enter” aren’t right for the job.

“I don’t have any extra hours to wade through a hundred resumes of people who live on another continent or want to make a career switch. Of the 10% who might be qualified, most are out of work, live in another city or have too many or too few years of experience,” Charet says.

John Touey, a principal at executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group in Radnor, Pa., says that he’s seeing companies using their own career websites in a much more significant way and advertising positions via social media sites, specifically LinkedIn.

Regardless of how companies are using online tools—whether their own websites or social media tools like LinkedIn—Touey says it’s critical for them to be cognizant of supporting and maintaining their overall employer brand image.

“Cutting-edge organizations are trying to build functionality into those websites to become more interactive,” he says. “It’s not just going out to apply for a job or putting your resume into a database and then never hearing anything again. It’s more permission-based, ‘push’ technology, where, once that relationship is established, the organization is using email and applicant-
tracking systems to push information out to people who’ve registered for the website or are in the database.”

The Holy Grail of the online recruitment experience, Touey says, “is creating a more customized, interactive experience for a potential candidate.”

That’s one of the big benefits of LinkedIn over other social media tools, he notes. Companies that are using this tool most effectively are creating one-to-one relationships with a passive candidate pool (those not actively engaged in job search).

Charet agrees that, of the popular social media tools, LinkedIn holds the most value from a recruitment standpoint. LinkedIn, she notes, “allows a recruiter to find the right people in the right place and to easily reach out to them.” Social media tools like Twitter are just too “dangerous,” she says, because other people can see your messages. Facebook, she adds, is “a personal connecting place, and people don’t like to be approached by people they don’t know.”

Treading carefully

Aside from the use of their own websites or professionally oriented tools such as LinkedIn, the crowded nature, privacy concerns and potential for risk inherent in online activity are causing many HR professionals to rethink the way they use social media in the recruitment process. This is true, particularly, when it comes to the screening process.

Cameron Evans, an employment attorney who is part of the social, mobile and emerging media team with Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP in Detroit, says his own experiences support research findings that HR professionals are increasingly leery about using social media in the search process. There are a few reasons for this decline, he says.

First, six states—California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey—have passed laws forbidding employers from asking applicants for their social media passwords, the result of widely circulated stories a few years back about companies that did just that. Other states are considering similar legislation. Even companies that had never asked for passwords, or would never consider doing so, view these laws as just another indication that it’s tricky terrain out there in the social media world.

A second reason, Evans notes, is the “TMI syndrome”—the potential to unearth too much information, specifically information that is far afield of factors required to determine a candidate’s appropriateness for a job. Knowing more than you need to know about a candidate can definitely create problems, he says.

For instance, suppose you’re interviewing two candidates for a management position: one is a 35-year-old man and one is a 35-year-old woman. You go on Facebook after the interviews to do some research on their backgrounds and you see comments from the female applicant about her current pregnancy. While she didn’t appear to be pregnant and you were leaning toward the male candidate because you believed he was better qualified, you could still land in hot water.

Such information can affect employers, even if they make a hiring decision despite what they see online, Evans says.

Suppose, for example, you’ve hired someone for a high-level leadership position even though you suspect the person may be a casual drug user because you saw posts about marijuana use on his Facebook page. Later, another employee—one you don’t like quite as well—is arrested for simple possession of marijuana and you want to fire her.

“Now, if it comes out during discovery in a lawsuit, this could cause a problem,” Evans says. “If you knew about this other person’s potential drug use and it was OK to hire him, and now you want to fire an employee you don’t like as well for the same reason, what’s the difference?”

Risk vs. reward

Employers are not blind to the risks of using social media to make hiring decisions. SHL, a global leader in talent measurement solutions based in Surrey, England, and part of CEB, released its Global Assessment Trends Report 2013 in February. It surveyed nearly 600 HR professionals worldwide, revealing that 88% of employers claimed a lack of confidence in the quality of candidate data from social media sites.

The report has been published for five years and lack of confidence has been on the upswing, says Ken Lahti, vice president of product development and innovation for SHL.

“There are some provocative findings with respect to social media,” he says. This year, the study included some additional items to assess response to how critical social media was in the hiring process and the level of confidence that respondents had in the quality of candidate data they get from social media.

“Only 12% have any confidence in the quality of the data,” Lahti says. “The fact that there’s a little bit of a dip in terms of the usage of social media and the kind of relatively damning lack of endorsement about the kind of quality and confidence that they have in the data to me is reflective of the fact that the honeymoon is over with social media. It’s not seen as a universally good thing anymore.”

This is true not only because of the risks of learning things online that you might have been better off not knowing, but also because of the overall value of candidate information that may be shared through curriculum vitae, resumes and profiles, he says. The same issues related to misrepresentation of credentials, degrees and work experience occur just as often in the online world. In fact, Lahti says, “The human resource community is getting older and wiser about the use of social media and seeing that people can manipulate their profiles and can misrepresent themselves electronically just as well as they can on paper resumes.”

Ultimately, as with any business decision, employers and their HR advisers need to weigh risk against reward when considering the use of social media in the hiring process, Evans advises. In some cases, he says, the risks outweigh the benefits of gathering information through social media sites.

“The first thing they need to do is to understand what the potential risks are and then evaluate those risks against the perceived benefits,” Evans says. “You may not really be learning anything (online).” It’s important, he adds, to evaluate social media to determine the value of the information that it might shed on applicants.

“You may not really be learning anything that is going to be of value in determining who’s going to be a valued, productive member of the team,” he says.

The position itself may help to determine the value of social media recruiting. For instance, executive-level or other critical hires may require a higher level of scrutiny. Employees in these positions are likely to represent your company in public.

“If you see an applicant applying for a chief financial officer position and social media indicates how he’s gotten away with putting something over on a company or taking financial advantage of a company, or you see him out there with inappropriate photos showing he’s drunk in public, now there’s someone who raises a concern,” Evans says.

This type of analysis needs to occur on a case-by-case basis, considering the position and its role in the company, the level of exposure the person in the position will have, as well as its potential impact on the reputation of the company and, ultimately, the overall risk of this online screening. Do the rewards outweigh those risks?

Managing your managers

Human resources isn’t the only department responsible for acting appropriately when looking at information about potential candidates online. Anyone who may be influential in hiring decisions needs to be aware of and follow appropriate practices when using information obtained online.

Even having policies in place and training managers on those policies won’t protect a company if managers aren’t following them, Evans says. In fact, he adds, it may put the company at greater risk if managers are aware of the infraction and don’t take steps to do something about it. In a hiring situation, if a manager says, “Hey, I saw the applicant’s Facebook page and it raises a concern,” HR personnel would need to address that by saying, “We have a policy that says we don’t look at that information and we’re not going to take that into consideration in the hiring process.” At that time it also would be appropriate to tell the manager what actions would be taken if the situation occurred again.

SHL’s research suggests that much of what HR professionals are looking for online is legitimate background information.

“The top things they’re looking at are not controversial at all—previous work history, education and then recommendations from others,” Lahti says. After the top three, “it starts getting scary rather quickly. They start looking at hobbies and interests of the candidate that may or may not be job-relevant at all. The fifth thing they’re looking at is pictures. And they’re looking at their ‘Likes’—things they like, things that they’ve endorsed, the groups they’re involved in.”

Lahti adds, “All of that stuff to me is a bit scary because HR has worked really hard in the U.S. since the 1960s with all of the civil rights legislation to remove bias from HR decisions, especially from hiring decisions. Basically, all of that is getting thrown out the window because social media is providing a back door into some of that bias.”

Of course, it’s always been possible for managers and other staff members to obtain personal information about candidates that they might share to influence a hiring decision.

“It’s the same issue in a new package,” Evans says. “It’s the frequency and ease with which you can get this information that makes it different.” In the past, the probability of this happening was far less than today when we can do a quick Google search on someone.

Evans adds that when these situations occur online, it’s easy to prove that the information has been obtained. In the past, it might have been more of a “he said/she said” situation. Now, it’s possible to go back and trace online activity to say, “OK, the candidate was interviewed on March 28 and we can see that the manager accessed her Facebook page on that date, and we can retrieve the Facebook page at that point in time to see what the manager would have found out.”

To launch a solid offense to protect against the potential misuse of online information in hiring decisions, companies need both policies and education, the experts say.

Unfortunately, Lahti notes, not many companies have policies in place.

“Only 19% actually have formal policies in place on how hiring managers and recruiters should be using social media in the hiring process,” Lahti says. “So you’ve got a large percentage of companies that are looking at all kinds of stuff, including potentially goofy or nonjob-related information about candidates and, potentially, factoring that into their decisions.”

Lahti says that HR has a significant opportunity to get in front of this issue.

“The message I would send,” he says, “is to think about what kinds of policies should be put in place to help people understand what the right way to use social media is versus how it might either open them up to risk or at least be potentially unfair and an unobjective way to hire people.”

Social media to the rescue

For disabled job seekers, the traditional means of searching for and interviewing for jobs can be taxing. This is an area where social media comes to the rescue, offering both opportunity and reach—thus benefiting both potential employees and employers.

Barbara Otto, head of Think Beyond the Label, a private-public collaborative based in Chicago that connects businesses, job seekers and the public workforce system to ensure employment opportunities for workers with disabilities, says one of the best ways to recruit qualified workers with disabilities is through online resources, such as online career fairs. The top three rewards of online recruiting for this group of job seekers, according to Think Beyond the Label, are:

  • By participating in an online recruiting environment that’s specifically targeted to people with disabilities, candidates can let their guards down, knowing employers are eager to learn more about them.
  • With an online career fair, there’s no need to reveal a disability. This enables job seekers to keep the focus squarely on their skills and experience, not on a disability.
  • People with disabilities often are highly tech savvy because their livelihood depends on it. In addition to showing how productive they are through the use of technology, an online career fair lets job seekers demonstrate to employers how easily they’d fit into a corporate environment.

Note: This article is intended for information purposes only. Consult with your own human resource professionals or legal counsel to create policies for your company.

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