Is that your face?

There is evidence that employers are increasingly using the ‘search’ facility on sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace to check out prospective employees. [Feature article from 'Summons' Spring 2008]

HAVING YOUR PHOTO taken as the party draws to an end and then seeing it displayed the next day attached to an email or, even more embarrassing, on someone's social networking web page is not so uncommon these days.

Making an idiot of yourself is bad enough when your colleagues or friends are the only witnesses. Having your indiscretions paraded in front of the world is a little more worrying. But just imagine a prospective employer admiring your 'cute' outfit or graphic evidence of your lecherous advances - before deciding whether or not to hire you?

There is evidence that employers are increasingly using the 'search' facility on sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace to check out whether that respectable 'public' image that you are presenting to them is actually a wholly accurate picture of their prospective new admin assistant, practice manager or doctor.

You need to assume that your Facebook postings will be open to scrutiny by someone other than your 'best mate'

Application forms, CVs, face-to-face interviews and references used to be the main methods for prospective employers to assess candidates. But now web browsers offer a new means of checking out applicants and, according to a recent survey by a recruitment consultancy, one in five employers are using information gleaned from social networking sites as an aid to selection.

So, whilst you might previously have been able to predict how prospective employers would check you out, widespread use of social networking sites has now moved the goalposts and you need to take appropriate steps to ensure that your social habits are not cramping your work prospects.

Of course, you may not have full control over the details being posted on the web. However, it is fairly obvious that voluntarily recording such indiscretions as:

  • slagging off your current employer or disclosing confidential information about your job or boss
  • expressing racist or sexist views
  • admitting, on the website, that the information about your qualifications or experience, in the employer's possession, is inaccurate indulging in criminal activity (for example drug-taking or vandalism) are unlikely to endear you to that employer.

The fact is - you need to assume that your postings will be open to scrutiny by someone other than your 'best mate'.

But employers who are rubbing their hands with glee at this new resource for sorting the sober wheat from the drunken chaff need to remember that they have legal liabilities too in this process.

For example, an employee or candidate who is gay or lesbian might reasonably wish this to remain confidential in a work context - even if they are out in their private life. If the information about the person's sexuality leads the employer to take a decision about their employment (either not to recruit or, possibly, to dismiss) based purely on their knowledge of this element of their private life, this may contravene the sexual orientation discrimination regulations. Similar legal restrictions might apply to using information about a person's religious or philosophical beliefs (as expressed in an online video, for example) as the basis for less favourable treatment by an employer.

The Information Commissioner's Code on the use of personal data in vetting employees or candidates suggests that, because of the danger of employers invading the privacy of the person concerned, candidates (or employees) should be told that web-checking is part of the process of assessing suitability. Even then, the nature of the post should determine whether the employer's snooping into the private lives of their employees or applicants is justified (and in compliance with the 'fair processing' principles in the Data Protection Act).

Ian Watson, Training Services Manager, Law At Work