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Careers Insight: When ‘private’ is for all to see

The rise of social media has added an interesting dimension to the recruitment process as individuals happily place detailed personal information online.

These days our personalities exist both in the online and offline worlds.

Social media provides an impression of you: what is important to you and how you interact with others. With this in mind, consider the reputation you are building as you use it.

People who upload material to open-access sections of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, should reasonably anticipate it may be searched for and viewed by potential employers.

Poor spelling and grammar, or a regular use of expletives is going to be unattractive to most would-be employers

Of course, showing off things like professional experience, mutual connections or examples of previous work can work well to enhance the impression of a person, and posts about volunteering or donations to charity can take this a lot further.

But there is a lot that can reflect really badly. At a base level, poor spelling and grammar, or a regular use of expletives is going to be unattractive to most would-be employers. Such an online personality may not even get you to the start line when it comes to a selection process.

Legally, a person’s “protected characteristics”, as defined by the Equality Act 2010, cannot be used in making a hiring decision. What is more, the law on discrimination applies equally to online as well as offline vetting, so employers must be careful not to base recruitment decisions on discriminatory factors, such as age, race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs.

A candidate’s profile should not be used for a “trawling exercise”, as opposed to a search for specific information directly relevant to the job.

Best practice says a candidate should be informed at the outset if online sources may be used to collect information about them. Moreover, they should have an opportunity to respond to material findings if their online profile has formed part of the decision process.

But there is no denying the digital world is providing lots of material that is difficult to keep out of the judgement formed of people. We all have unconscious biases that come into play when we make decisions and being privy to personal – not job-related – information will influence our judgment.

In recent years, a lot of efforts have been made to reduce the likelihood of learning about protected characteristics until late in the selection process. However, social media opens the door to a plethora of personal information being available unofficially outside of a recruitment process.

The digital world is providing lots of material that is difficult to keep out of the judgement formed of people

It is fundamentally very difficult to prove discrimination against someone who has been influenced by social media posts. There is a fine line between firms being compliant and not, and it is very hard to prove whether someone has used social media to influence a hiring decision.

Everyone has a right to protect the processing of their personal information under the Data Protection Act, but it is highly unlikely an employer viewing a personal social media site without printing it off or forwarding it to anyone would be caught by it.

People may also find it difficult to justify privacy where they have uploaded material to the “non-private” sections of social media sites.

Indeed, the right of privacy as it applies to social media is a developing area of law. In the meantime, you may wish to review your public profiles.

For now, the question is not whether you agree employers should use social media profiles as part of their screening process or not, but whether you should take steps to modify your profile knowing it may be viewed by a current or future employer.

Just because your social media postings have not been an issue yet, does not mean they will never be.

Peter Gwilliam is owner of Virtus Search

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