Social Networks: A New Hotbed for Hiring Discrimination Claims

As corporate recruiters and hiring managers turn to social networking websites to source and screen candidates for jobs, what constitutes illegal discrimination? Find out what information about job seekers gleaned from social networking websites you can and can't factor into your hiring decisions in this Q&A with HR expert Jessica Miller-Merrell.

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Mon, April 18, 2011

CIO — Social networking websites are fast becoming a staple of corporate recruiting. Depending on which studies you read, anywhere from 39 to 65 percent of companies use social networking websites to identify and screen potential candidates for open positions.

Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Ning have made it easier and cheaper for recruiters and hiring managers to access a vast and receptive talent pool, says Jessica Miller-Merrell, an HR consultant who specializes in social media. She notes that there are 600 million active users on Facebook alone who spend between six and 12 hours each month on the site.

In addition, says Miller-Merrell, these sites can offer recruiters a view into candidates' personalities and work styles that they may never otherwise get from a résumé, cover letter or job interview.

Miller-Merrell began using the Web to find candidates for retail jobs in 2001 while working as an HR manager at Target. "I went to dating websites, local, city chat rooms and community forums to source candidates," she says.

This web-based sourcing strategy worked well for Miller-Merrell at Target, and later, at OfficeMax (OMX). "About 30 percent of the candidates I sourced in 2007, 2008 and 2009 came from Facebook and Myspace," she says. "My Facebook job seekers in particular had a higher retention rate as opposed to hiring someone from a job fair or newspaper."

But the benefits that social networking websites offer to recruiters and hiring managers in terms of the information they provide about their members also poses a huge legal risk, says Miller-Merrell. Because of the way people meld the personal and the professional on these sites, hiring managers who use them risk factoring inappropriate information about a candidate that they learn through one of these sites into a hiring decision.

For example, a hiring manager checking out a candidate's Twitter feed might find out that the candidate has a health condition. The hiring manager, concerned that the candidate will miss a lot of work or cause the company's health insurance premiums to rise, may pass on the candidate, says Miller-Merrell, which is a form of illegal discrimination, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hiring Discrimination
Don't let employers use your social networking profiles to unfairly discriminate against you.

The scary fact for companies and job seekers is that most employers aren't being careful enough with the information they glean about candidates when using social networking websites in their recruiting, says Miller-Merrell.

"They're not cataloging this information. There's normally not a consistent process in place as far as what they do for each candidate, and this is going to create a lot of [legal] problems in the next couple of years," she says.

CIO.com spoke with Miller-Merrell about the legal implications of companies using social networking websites in their hiring processes, the information that employers can and can't factor into their hiring decisions, and the magnitude of the legal risk associated with employment discrimination through social networking websites.

CIO: What are the legal risks associated with using social networking sites to source and screen candidates?

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