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Why we need guidelines for social media screening

Smartphone display with social media applications being showed.

Have you ever posted something online which you’ve later regretted?

As the events of the last few weeks show, you’re far from the only person to have done this. The election campaign has thrown up another set of cases where candidates have been forced to stand down because of past social media posts.

It’s a fact of life that candidates standing for parliament will - and should - be held to a higher level of accountability than most other workers. It's understandable that political parties have a much lower threshold for previous comments which disqualify candidates from a role.

However, these cases raise a number of important points when it comes to pre-employment vetting. For example, where do companies draw that line? Does one misjudged social media post from 10 years ago when an applicant was a teenager make them unsuitable for a position now?

The social media difference

With adults spending an average of three hours and 15 minutes online every day, people are increasingly living their lives online. The unintended consequence of this second life online is the creation of digital profiles which provide another insight into prospective employees.

Given organisations are investing significant sums whenever they hire, it’s little wonder that many are turning to this rich source of information. As we’ve seen from election candidates being stood down, it is far better to find any red flags before hiring someone than after.

Increasingly, employers are finding that these online profiles provide a far greater insight into a candidate’s behaviour than the traditional CV ­– which could be exaggerated – interview process, or references. Social media activity could now even appear on enhanced DBS checks in cases where police have recorded a ‘non-crime hate incident’ for posts featuring content considered offensive by victims.

However, these cases give rise to another consideration: fairness. If pre-employment social media screening does flag something an employer isn’t comfortable with, what considerations should businesses make? At what point do people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and when is something serious enough that they shouldn’t be employed?

With other types of vetting, like police checks, there are rules and sources of advice which guide how organisations should interpret and act upon findings. Employers are told what is relevant, what to take into account, whether something is recent enough to be considered, along with various other factors.  All of these are also taken with the mindset that people with convictions should not be unnecessarily impeded from working.

This isn't the case with social media. Organisations have an entirely blank canvas on factors to consider, how long ago something occurred and whether to proceed with the hire.

Digital economy best practice

You may ask why any of this matters? Surely applicants are responsible for what they put on social media?

Yes, however, can you remember some of your social media posts from ten years ago? Do you think it would be fair if the recruitment process for your next role boiled down to a tweet typed in anger back in the day?

With screening becoming an increasingly important part of the recruitment process, greater number of candidates are going be caught out by social media checks.

The UK is – hopefully ­– moving towards an agile, digital, post-industrial labour market, where social media native candidates expect increased freedom, as well as the flexibility of taking on multiple roles. To realise this ambition, employers must harness the latest technology to hire intelligently, in a way which is safe for both parties and not discriminatory.

For example, at Reed Screening, as the only UK-based 24/7 screening business, can already fully check candidates overnight. What businesses then choose to do with that information can take far longer, particularly if there are no guidelines to direct them on what social media findings are relevant.

This is why someone, whether it be a think tank, trade body, regulator or industry group, needs to create a frame of reference for both organisations and individuals. Guidelines and processes for fair and equal social media screening are already long overdue, and become even more pressing with each new case.

While politicians are the ones who attract the headlines, it’s ordinary workers who will be most affected by social media vetting which is misinterpreted by an employer. A set of common standards will massively reduce this risk, allowing for employers to hire employees with necessary agility, safe in the knowledge that they have interpreted their social media screening correctly.

If you are looking for more information about social media checks, contact Reed Screening on 0161 833 8855.