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Most business functions have succumbed to the ubiquity and power of social media, and the HR department isn't immune. According to research conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, 76 percent of companies currently use or plan to use social media during the recruiting process.

Whether it's spreading the word about a new job posting through LinkedIn groups or reviewing candidates' Twitter feeds before an interview, social media offers HR managers a quick, cost-effective way to expedite the recruiting process. But while social channels seem like an obvious resource for pre-employment screening, there's an incredibly fine line between acceptable and inappropriate use. When applied inappropriately, social media screening can prompt a slew of legal risks related to user privacy and employee discrimination.

Despite a vague regulatory landscape in regard to social media and hiring, compliance executives and HR departments should start enforcing their own standards in order to preempt backlash (legal or reputation) later on.

Lack of regulation, but not repercussions

Amid the volumes of U.S. federal and state laws surrounding employee discrimination, there is a notable absence of government guidelines when it comes to the realm of social media. Official plans to instate definitive regulations remain indefinite.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a panel in March where both public and private sector representatives discussed how social media use by employers, employees and applicants intersects with other EEOC-enforceable laws. HR and corporate counsel experts agreed that while Facebook and LinkedIn can be invaluable in their ability to filter candidates by professional qualifications, discrimination could result from wrongful use of race, gender, age, ethnicity or other demographics available on social profiles. In today's era or oversharing information, applicants have more ammunition to claim hiring discrimination due to a Facebook profile or Tumblr post that conveys political affiliation or religious views.

Panels like this may be stepping-stones to future policymaking, but the EEOC has yet to issue rules (or announced plans to do so) that clarify employers' use of social media-derived information for hiring purposes. For now, organizations must take due diligence into their own hands.

Writing rules

Even without top-down guidance, there are concrete ways businesses can prevent the potentially severe fallout of misusing social media information during the hiring process.

  1. Tailor training – and make sure it sticks. As employee social media use becomes more prevalent in the workplace, so do corporate social media policies. Policies, however, are only as effective as the training that supports them. Given the growth of social media usage within businesses, social media policies and accompanying training need to be customized for different scenarios. Compliance executives and HR leaders should collaborate on written policies and educational programs that specifically address how social media should be used for talent acquisition, and what types of information hiring managers can derive from candidates' social profiles. Businesses should rely on a mix of training methods, including video and interactive modules, to promote staff engagement and retention of compliance standards.
  2. Know who the company is working with. Many HR departments rely on a third-party network of recruiters, headhunters and outsourced staffing firms to sift through prospects and identify which candidates to interview. Businesses need a process for vetting partner firms from a social media compliance perspective: How do they use social media to identify leads and which channels do they evaluate? With an unclear view of third parties' social hiring policies, employers are more likely to bear the blame for subsequent discrimination claims.
  3. Diversify resources. A simple way to mitigate the risk of social media-driven hiring discrimination is to rely on more than social data when reviewing candidates. Stick to tradition (e.g., assess applicants' resumes, cover letters and third-party references), while looking to social media for skills-based information, such as personal blogs to gauge writing experience or LinkedIn for professional projects or certifications.
  4. Stay flexible. There may be a lack of government regulation around social media and the hiring process now, but the status quo won't hold forever. In the event that formal guidelines are issued, HR and compliance departments must be equipped to quickly incorporate new rules into their written codes of conduct and training programs. To guarantee a painless revision process later, organizations would be wise to digitize their current policies and educational reinforcements now. Making this information accessible online, via the corporate intranet or employee mobile devices, can augment staff compliance and foster continued training.

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