Checking a job applicant's online presence (Toughest HR Question)

How far can – and should – an employer go when it comes to social media?
By Lorenzo Lisi
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/06/2015

Question: Can an employer use a job applicant’s social media activity as a factor in determining whether to hire her? Does the employer need permission from the applicant to look at social media?


Answer: With social media and online networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, it is easier than ever for employers and recruiters to review job candidates’ online presence when making hiring decisions. But this raises new concerns, especially as the use of social media to conduct background checks can provide a potential employer with a range of information previously unavailable during the hiring process.


When recruiting and hiring employees in Ontario, for example, employers must comply with the Human Rights Code. The code prohibits discrimination in employment on the grounds of race, ancestry, place of origin, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, record of offences, marital status, family status and disability. While not prohibited, the use of social media when making hiring decisions raises a number of risks for employers, especially in relation to the accuracy and collection of information from online networking sites. For example, from the review of a profile picture on Facebook, the potential employer can gain information relating to a candidate’s age, family status, sexual orientation, disability or race that is unavailable from a typical resumé or job application.


If an employment decision is made based on information gleaned from social media, an employer can face allegations of discrimination if a candidate alleges she was screened out of the hiring process based on her online presence.


To protect against such claims of discrimination, potential employers should standardize recruitment processes. This includes determining the specific information requested from candidates and how such information is received.


If employers do choose to use social media, it is best to review candidates’ online profiles after a face-to-face meeting. Further, where possible, the decision-maker with respect to any particular candidate should not be reviewing a file that sets out the results of social media background checks. Separating these allows the decision to be made without reference to information found online.


There have been media reports in both Canada and the United States about employers asking job candidates for their Facebook passwords in order to review their online posts. While a potential employer does not need permission to review public online profiles, both Facebook and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have released statements stating that asking for such passwords violates potential employees’ privacy.


Lorenzo Lisi practises employment and labour law at Aird & Berlis in Toronto. Aird & Berlis can be reached at (416) 863-1500 or www.airdberlis.com.

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