Social networking sites: friend or foe?

Social networking site Facebook is the latest darling of the internet with 3.2 million users in the UK.

The website enables users to display their real name and a photograph to everyone else on Facebook. While it is possible to limit a profile just to the users’ friends, sadly not all users are aware that if they don’t change their privacy settings all members of Facebook can see their profile. Indeed I have been able to look at the profiles of half of the HR professionals in London – and what marvellous (and often drunken!) holidays you all have.


Employers fear Facebook as a “social notworking” distraction. Like other sites, Facebook is certainly addictive and can consume large amounts of bandwidth and employers are certainly within their rights to ban access to the site. But a total ban on using Facebook will make your organisation look like it’s run by clueless monsters which is perhaps not the best staff retention strategy. The best option for most organisations is to restrict access to lunchtimes and the hours before and after work.

Some ask what the use of Facebook is for an employer. One use coming to the fore in the media is as a means of vetting candidates as this quote from the Times, 17 July shows: “Jacqueline Thomson, from PR firm Brands2Life, said that she had turned down one applicant after learning that he had used Facebook “to criticise previous employers and discuss company information.”

Personally I wouldn’t employ anyone daft enough to leave their Facebook profile open to the public. An online search to check a candidate’s past loyalty to employers is though a sensible use of Facebook. Less sensible is allowing uncontrolled and unmonitored searching of candidates by your managers.

Application forms and recruitment policies are honed over time by HR to prevent decision makers being influenced by irrelevant material such as a candidate’s marital status, their hobbies, their favourite football team, their religion, their sexuality and their age. It’s a helpful defence to a claim of discrimination to say “we couldn’t have discriminated against you because you were gay because we didn’t know you were gay.” All this hard work by HR is at risk because of Facebook.

Each user joins at least one network based on geography (the London Network has 820,000 users), college or workplace (the BBC Network has 14,000 members (which says all we need to know about the use of the licence fee!). Indeed, your own organisation may have a network set up by staff which is not under your organisation’s control. But as long as there are sensible guidelines in place a work based network can be useful in generating a sense of togetherness that large organisations sometimes lack.


Each user creates a profile which asks such questions as “are you interested in men or women?”, “are you in a relationship?”, “are you liberal or conservative?” (betraying its American roots) “what are your religious views?” “what’s your date of birth?” which school or university did you go to?” “where have you worked?” “what’s your job title?”. This is great when you are trying to show off to your friends but is an open invitation to a prospective employer to discriminate against you. And a manager could use Facebook to search all job applicants and find out all the information necessary to discriminate against candidates and HR will be none the wiser.

Lawyers acting for failed candidates can use the questionnaire process under the discrimination legislation to ask questions asking about freelance vetting operations by managers and may even ask for IT records to check whether Facebook has been accessed by a manager at work.

So what can HR do to prevent managers circumventing the recruitment process by doing freelance research on candidates? Certainly you should revise recruitment policies to prohibit managers from making online searches against candidates using Facebook or indeed Google, MySpace or Bebo and make it clear that such off-piste activity will be considered a disciplinary offence.

If you think that an online search may be of value (and are prepared to take the risk of breaching Facebook’s terms on commercial use of the site) your recruitment and internet policies should specify that online searches into candidates should only be done by HR.

HR should ignore any information relating the candidate’s social behaviour – the only issues that should be the subject of vetting online are:

  • Whether there are any inappropriate comments about a current or former employer which would show that the candidate is untrustworthy (though even here your policy might need exemptions for whistle blowing)
  • Whether any published information relating to the candidate’s employment history contradicts any statements on any job application form or CV.

If any negative information is discovered by HR from such a search you should print a copy off, place it with the candidate’s file and store in accordance with normal good practice and record the reason for terminating the recruitment process for that candidate.

James Lynas,
Winckworth Sherwood

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