Don't check Facebook before hiring, says privacy commissioner

"Yes, they're accessible but they're not necessarily meant for everybody," says Donovan Molloy about public bodies checking social media of hiring candidates.

New privacy guidelines on hiring and social media released

Donovan Molloy, information and privacy commissioner of Newfoundland and Labrador, has some advice for employers when it comes to getting details about potential employees. (CBC)

In 2002, writer Heather B. Armstrong — also known as Dooce — said she had lost her job because of posts on her popular blog. The resulting online debate led to a new word: "dooced," which means getting fired for something written online.

A decade and a half later, people regularly post information about themselves, their lives, and their opinions on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

That information may be public, but Newfoundland and Labrador's privacy commissioner told the St. John's Morning Show on Thursday that doesn't mean it can be used to make hiring decisions.

"There's things there that yes, they're accessible but they're not necessarily meant for everybody," said Donovan Molloy, 

"In our view, they're not meant for public-body employers in Newfoundland and Labrador to use as an indirect source of determining whether or not you're somebody that they might want to hire."

To help employers make good hiring decisions in a world where personal information about candidates is often just a Facebook search away, the privacy commission has released a new set of guidelines on doing employee and background checks via social media.

The short version: don't do it.

No consent? Not authorized

"Without their consent as part of the job application or without telling them, 'We're going to check your social media accounts,' I don't think public bodies in Newfoundland and Labrador should be checking the social media accounts of job candidates," Molloy said.

The collection, handling, and use of information by public bodies is governed by the province's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. That act specifically requires that with the exception of specified circumstances, information must be directly collected from the individuals a public body is dealing with.

A CareerBuilder poll shows a majority of employers use social media to screen candidates before hiring. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

"If you're collecting information about job candidates from their social media sites it isn't a direct collection, it's an indirect collection," Molloy said. "Unless you've gotten consent, it's not authorized. And even if you do have consent there are dangers associated with finding outdated material, material related to third persons."

Some information that may be found on Facebook could make a potential employee look merely undesirable — for example, photos of excessive drinking or the expression of controversial personal views.

But other information can lead to illegal discrimination against a potential employee, Molloy said. A hiring manager could inadvertently learn that an employee is disabled, for example, or is trying to become pregnant.

"There's all kinds of stuff there that could be used potentially to discriminate against people," Molloy said.

Most employers look at social media before hiring: poll

These practices can be difficult to enforce, but employers shouldn't assume that it will remain a secret if they look at someone's Facebook profile.

"If somebody reasonably believes that an employer has done that, a public-body employer, they can make a complaint to us and we can look into it. We have any number of capacities including powers to search and to compel the production of documents," Molloy said. 

Social media sites have made it a lot easier for employers to find out information about potential employees that might not come up in a job interview. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

The concern isn't insignificant. Seventy per cent of employers use social media to screen candidates before hiring, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder poll.

For young people who have grown up with social media and are just now thinking about the consequences once they enter the workforce, Molloy has one piece of advice.

"Put your privacy settings to the highest possible setting that is available on whatever platform you are using," Molloy said. "We're all entitled to our youthful indiscretions. We just don't want them hanging over us for the rest of our lives."

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