Can HR snoop too much on social media sites?

Pictures appear on the smartphone photo sharing application Instagram.

Sue Melrose doesn't want to know how drunk you got last night. She's a recruiter at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a Fortune 500 company based in Minneapolis. And when Melrose is considering job candidates, she basically takes the approach of 'don't ask, don't Facebook."

"People could post on someone's wall, 'Hey, you were really wild at the party last night, it was great!'," says Melrose.  "I feel pretty clear as a recruiter: I do not want to know!"

Social networking sites have made it easier than ever before to peer into people's private lives. So it's not surprising that employers might want to check out those sites to learn more about job applicants. Melrose will scout around on a website like LinkedIn, since it's largely used for professional purposes. But unless she's filling a marketing or communications job that requires social media savviness, Melrose steers clear of candidate's Facebook and Twitter profiles.

"It's really about the ethical, the fair thing. You look solely at their skills and experience and ability to do the job," Melrose says.

Legally, that's a safe way to play it. Learning too much could lead to discrimination.

What if the hiring manager saw on Facebook that a candidate was pregnant? Teresa Thompson, an employment lawyer in Minneapolis, has frequently put that question to hiring managers. On one such occasion, she herself was pregnant.

As Thompson recalls, "I stood out from behind the podium and turned sideways, which was frightening, and showed my stomach to the world, and I said, 'If you had to choose between me at nine months pregnant and an equally qualified person, who would you choose?' And everyone in the room hung their head."

Thomson says if a pregnant candidate is rejected, suspects discrimination, and sues... the employer would have to admit to checking out her Facebook page.

But Jason Averbook at the consulting firm Appirio thinks it's paranoid to avoid social media when scouting for talent.

"You have to go to where the people are," says Averbook. "And that's a big thing that recruiters have to figure out."

One alternative for companies is to hire outside firms to check out job applicants' social media profiles for them. Those reports censor out stuff like race or age.

But that picture of you in college doing a kegstand? Let's hope they never find it.

About the author

Annie Baxter is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

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