/ 6 September 2013

Snooping or due diligence?

The 2006 forensic report prepared for Zuma's trial that never saw the light of day ... now made available in the public interest.
The outcome of the ANC’s long-awaited KwaZulu-Natal conference was a win for the Thuma Mina crowd. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Growing numbers of recruiters are turning online to gather information as part of their candidate screening process.

This information-gathering extends beyond professional portals such as LinkedIn, to the more personal sites such as facebook.

In a US study carried out by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder last year, 37% of companies said they use social media sites to research job candidates and 11% said they intend to start doing so.

The hiring managers who used social media for background checks said they did so mainly to see if the candidate presented him or herself professionally and to see whether the candidate was a good fit for the company culture.

About 34% of those researching candidates through social media said they had found information that caused them not to hire the candidate.

The content that caused them to reject the candidate included provocative or inappropriate photos and information, evidence of drinking or using drugs, poor communication skills, bad mouthing of previous employers and discriminatory comments related to race, gender or religion.

While some candidates may feel their social media posts reflect their personal lives and should not impact on their professional lives, Nerushka Deosaran, IT law specialist and associate at Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa, said that in South Africa there are no laws prohibiting the use of public information for background checks.

“It comes down to whether personal information is private or not. Everyone has the right to privacy in terms of the Constitution and common law, but once they post information on a public forum it would be very difficult to argue that looking at it is an invasion of privacy,” she said.

However, ethical questions would arise in cases where a secure profile, intended only for friends, was fraudulently accessed by a potential employer.

“The practice of asking applicants for their social media passwords is also questionable,” said Deosoran.

While she is not aware of this having occurred in South Africa, complaints arose in the US last year when prospective employers sought applicants’ social media user names and passwords as part of the recruitment process.

Facebook issued a statement in response early last year, saying: “This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends.

“It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.

“That is why we have made it a violation of facebook’s statement of rights and responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.”

The rights of the employer
Steven Ambrose, chief executive of business technology consultancy Strategy Worx, said employers are entitled — and even obligated — to use every means possible to assess candidates information.

“In South Africa, hiring and firing is a heavily legislated process. Recruiters who do not do very thorough background checks are putting themselves at a disadvantage,” said Ambrose. “I’d venture to say that most recruiters are looking at social media as part of the pre-employment process.”

Ambrose believes that social media delivers valuable insights beyond what is included in a CV.

“CVs tend to be very cold and ‘engineered’. Through social media, recruiters are able to assess whether a candidate is a good fit for the organisation’s culture. I believe a successful appointment is a 50-50 balance between skills and experience, and cultural fit.”

Ambrose said social media could be seen to be adding a new dimension to pre-employment psychometric testing.

“It is part of the function of corporate HR and recruitment agencies to vet and understand candidates. So they should use all the tools at their disposal to do so,” he said.

“Using social media to carry out background checks is totally acceptable, we do the same when reviewing candidates.

“If a candidate’s social profile is ‘public’, they are clearly endorsing potential employers and recruiters to access this as a checking mechanism.

“However, social profiles can be abused whereby recruiters make direct approaches and hassle candidates through social networks.

“We had an experience where a recruiter even manufactured a candidate’s CV off their LinkedIn profile without consent to satisfy the employers need for more candidates. It makes sense to use social networks to find talent, but any use needs to be ethical,” says Nick Durrant, managing director of Bluegrass Digital.

Keeping it clean
Because social media background checks will become increasingly commonplace, Deosaran notes that it is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure that his or her public profiles reflect the professional image they want to project.

“This is particularly important for high school and university students, who may have inappropriate content on their pages, but will soon be entering the job market.

“They need to be aware that this content will show up in background checks,” she says.