The Recruiter's Dilemma: How Do I Look at a Candidate's Social Media Presence Without Creating More Risk?

Looking at a candidate's social media footprint presents recruiters with a real dilemma. On the one hand, social profiles give recruiters the scope to uncover far richer pictures of their potential hires. However, the mere act of looking at a candidate's social media presence may have recruiters crossing certain boundaries and even give rise to claims of discrimination in the hiring process. Getting this balance right is a real juggling act, but one that recruiters have to address because of both the potential upside and the risks involved.

I was thrilled to have the chance recently to speak with Fiona McLean, managing director of The Social Index, to gain a better understanding of how the recruitment profession might tackle this dilemma. With a background in industrial relations and as an HR director, McLean is acutely aware of the potential repercussions of misusing social media data, as well the issues around gaining candidate consent. McLean has also been a corporate recruiter, so she is equally aware of the tremendous benefits tapping into social media profile data can have for companies.

The Potential Upside of Assessing Candidates' Social Media Data

During our conversation, we turned our attentions first to the potential upsides of assessing social media profiling data. These upsides broadly fall into three categories:

1. Improved Quality of Hire

If recruiters can mine a richer vein of information than just a candidate's resume, they'll be able to generate stronger short lists of candidates. Furthermore, the likelihood of there being a good cultural fit between those short-listed candidates and the organization itself is also enhanced. Accessing social data allows recruiters to better understand a candidate's motivations and assess the likelihood of them proving to be a strong team fit. More generally, the recruiter will also have a better sense of the diversity of interests of each candidate and be better placed to successfully recruit and onboard candidates as a result.

2. Tapping Into the Network Value That Each Candidate Can Bring

For certain roles, how extensive each candidate's network is – and how engaged that network is with the candidate – can materially impact their prospects of succeeding with your company. This is most obviously the case in a business development role, but it also applies to a far-wider range of positions. Do your partnership or commercial directors, your key account managers, and your sales leaders all have the reach and engagement levels within their networks to produce maximum results? Until now, we've not been able to say for sure, but by properly assessing a candidate's social media presence at the short-listing stage, we can help ensure that only the strongest candidates make it through to the interviewing process.

3. Better Data on the Candidate's Reputation

How a candidate deals with conflict, how they demonstrate empathy, their interests and motivations, their ability to work in a team – all of this can be evidenced from social media. When considered in the context of the role and workplace, this data can be the strongest reference check you can get. Unlike traditional references, social media data comes from the candidates themselves over time and without the pressure of interview nerves, so you know the information is more candid.

The more a hiring decision can be built on a consistent process rather than on gut instinct, the more able an organization will be to make the right hires. Business leaders will also feel more reassured that the company can robustly defend its hiring decisions should there ever be the need to do so. If a means can be found of assessing each candidate's social media presence in a consistent way, the organization gives itself a variety of scores and benchmarks with which to assess any given pool of candidates.

Let's Not Ignore the Potential Downsides

Given the benefits outlined above, McLean argues convincingly that a recruitment team will be better positioned to make a successful hire if they are able to tap into each candidate's social presence. That being said, she is quick to highlight the existence of numerous pitfalls in this regard.

The issues of compliance and hiring discrimination trouble recruiting teams and large corporations most. Once we start looking at a candidate's social media presence, we risk being exposed to all sorts of insights about their race, religion, political views, and other factors we would ordinarily wish to keep out of the decision-making process. Inadvertently opening the business up to legal claims is one reason companies have serious reservations about tapping into social data as part of the hiring process.

There are also concerns around consistency and consent. With regards to consistency, how do we ensure that impressions derived from social media are impacting our short-listing decisions in a consistent way? In situations where candidates have vastly differing social media footprints, it is hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison with regard to who should be interviewed. Alongside this matter is the issue of consent. In terms of managing an employer's reputation and safeguarding the business against any future legal action, it is highly desirable that the business secures candidate consent before looking at any of their social profiles.

Exploiting the Opportunity

McLean's advice to recruiting teams is to find a means of getting these upsides while alleviating the potential pitfalls. In practice, this is no different from your current candidate experience and how you inform the candidate about your processes, checks, assessments, and so on. A systematic way of applying these reviews in the context of role and business needs is a good first step. At the same time, using a dedicated resource or external service provider can give recruiters consistent sets of social data to assess for each and every hiring campaign without exposing individual recruiters to the elements of candidates' social media profiles that could lead to discrimination complaints.

The team at The Social Index expect "reputation capital" to become a key asset over the coming years. From my vantage point in social media and influencer marketing, I'm very much inclined to agree. Whether or not you should be assessing candidates' social media presence will soon no longer be a matter for debate. Instead, we'll all be focused on the best practices for doing this. If you want to get ahead of the competition, now's the time to be addressing that challenge.

Tony Restell is the founder of social media agency You can find Tony on Twitter: @tonyrestell.