Screening Job Applicants with Social Networks? Establish Procedures First


The other day, I was pondering the decision the City of Bozeman, Mont., made to ask job applicants to disclose their usernames and passwords for Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and other social networking sites. City officials claimed they needed access to these accounts so they could see if the applicants were of solid enough moral character to serve as firefighters, on the police force, etc.


After public outcry from the social networks and various privacy organizations, the city changed its mind and no longer asks its applicants to disclose their login credentials. As such, the city is not party to applicants violating Web site terms of use. And, more importantly, it's not leaving the applicants open to fraud or identity theft at the hands of an unscrupulous city employee tasked with using the login creditials to collect information.


But that doesn't protect the city (or other employers, for that matter) from all liability arising from information collected on social networking sites. Some information is off-limits in the hiring process even if it is publicly available. Is it possible to screen job applicants using the Internet and not regret it later?


Thursday I spoke with Goodwin Procter senior counsel and privacy law practitioner Jacqueline Klosek, who says the answer is yes. Employers just need to remain mindful of some things. First, consistency in the hiring process is key, Klosek says. Even if the employer happens into information that reveals the applicant's race, family status, age, etc., discrimination liability can be avoided if the decision not to hire is made by following established processes and criteria, and that decision is thoroughly documented.


Employers should also be aware that "not everything you find on the Internet is correct," Klosek says. An applicant's online profile may indicate one thing, while their qualifications are completely different.