Using Internet Information To Screen Job Candidates Not Advised

By Robert Capwell May 27, 2008
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Internet search engines, chat rooms, social networking sites, blogs, online forums and other gathering sites have become fertile grounds for recruitment research.Many recruiters peruse these sites regularly to find industry movers and shakers and potential job candidates who possess certain knowledge or skill sets. And intercepting chatter of highly qualified individuals looking for a new job is perceived by many recruiters and hiring managers to be as valuable as a gold vein ready to be mined.

Indeed, the World Wide Web can be a much better resource for putting together a candidate pool than cold-calling one’s way through corporate switchboards, leaving voicemails to find prospects. Even searching the endless array of online job boards has changed over the past few years as firms are creating web crawlers that scan multiple boards to help compile consolidated lists of candidates. Many can even be uploaded automatically into an applicant tracking system for further evaluation. The brave new world of electronic recruiting is certainly upon us, and hiring managers are reaping the benefits of larger applicant pools captured in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner.

Using the web for screening and verification purposes as part of the background screening process, however, has many drawbacks. From a background screener’s point of view, the greatest concern is that hiring managers consider the information they’ve obtained from the web as factual and make hiring decisions based on unverified and un-vetted data. Use of Internet-based information that is incomplete or fictitious can lead to infringement of consumer privacy laws and even unintentional discrimination, which can lead to serious liability issues for employers.

Several major factors that should concern employers using, or even considering using, Internet-based data for screening purposes are:

Credibility: Is the information obtained factual and complete?

The most compelling feature of the Internet is the ability for anyone to create and post anything anywhere in the world at any time. Having that broad flexibility gives anyone the capability to post fact or fiction without any form of checks and balances or auditing to verify the credibility of the information. This very freedom from discretion, however, is the most significant reason that all information obtained from the Internet should be vetted through one or more credible sources before being considered factual data.

Mainstream media outlets post articles daily about individuals who have been arrested for various crimes. But browsing this type of information is no substitute for conducting formal criminal record due diligence. An article that states that someone has been arrested for a crime doesn’t in most cases provide any details on the outcome of the arrest. The charge could have been dismissed or even have resulted in a non-conviction, which might not make news. Passing judgment and failing to search court records can lead to employers being taken to court. But using a consumer reporting agency or professional background screening firm can provide companies with protection, as these firms are bound by the Fair Credit Reporting Act to use reasonable care in obtaining and using factual, current information.

Identity: Is the information found actually about the potential job candidate?

Common names and lack of additional identifiers to identify a job candidate positively is one of the biggest pitfalls of using the web to conduct screening. Without additional identifiers such as date of birth, Social Security number, current address or other types of information, how does anyone know if the information is referencing the right person?

Privacy: Is use of information crossing the lines of consumer privacy?

Millions of individuals are establishing their presence on web sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to upload their name and face for the world to see. Regardless of the reasons why people are using these social sites, the majority of them do not realize that some HR professionals, recruiters and hiring managers might be making hiring decisions—intentionally or unintentionally—based on what job candidates have posted about themselves.

Proprietors and creators of the social sites have “terms of use” for their members, as well as visitors to the site, and most are pretty specific when stating that the site is to be used by members only and not for commercial purposes, especially background screening. In addition to social sites’ “terms of use,” employers should be aware that there are various state statutes that address consumer privacy and breaches of that privacy, particularly when a screener has not obtained proper consent of the individual before entering or using the information posted on a social site.

Discrimination: Is the information found discriminatory in nature?

Probably the biggest gray area—and the issue that can get companies in the most hot water—relates to hiring discrimination. So companies must be very cautious when determining (a) if information acquired from the Internet is relevant to job performance and (b) whether there is a legitimate, and legal, reason to discount a candidate based on what they might have posted online.

Viewing certain pictures or videos that relate to individuals’ private lives reveals their gender and race or nationality. Often they can reveal their marital or family status, their religious or other group affiliations. Such information can skew hiring professionals’ perceptions of a candidate so much that they discount the candidate’s merits and qualifications for the job.

The Internet can be a useful tool for widening candidate pools and stretching the efficiencies and effectiveness of recruiting efforts; however, use it wisely and within legal boundaries.

Using the Internet for screening purposes can be a slippery slope fraught with potential liability. The screening of job candidates must follow specific federal and state guidelines; therefore, an “Internet screening/verification/decision-making process” is not advisable because it can take companies down a path that leads to the courthouse.

Robert Capwell is the chief knowledge officer ofEmployment Background Investigations Inc., and past chair of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners’ (NAPBS) Board of Directors.

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