Thanks to the internet, employers have access to more and more information about their employees and prospective employees than ever before. And most employers love that so much information is now available to them to guide their hiring practices.
Recently, I have gotten multiple questions from clients asking whether it is a smart thing for them to incorporate social media searches into the scope of their usual background checks on employees and prospective employees. My repeated advice is that employers must proceed with caution in this area that, for a variety of reasons, is fraught with the potential for legal peril.
Initially, if planning to look at social media sites, employers must be aware that New Jersey has a law which prohibits employers from demanding from employees or prospective employees that they supply their passwords so that the employer/prospective employer can access password protected private social media areas. While such private social media areas are protected and off limits, publically accessible information on the internet is not, and the law says that employers/prospective employers can consider what is publically accessible in areas where password access is unnecessary. But, as discussed below, there are looming legal dangers lurking even in those publically accessible areas of the world wide-web.
Moreover, employers who do any sort of a background check on employees and /or prospective employees must also ensure that they comply with the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”). Under the FCRA, an employer seeking to do a background check on an employee/prospective employment candidate must meet certain consent and disclosure requirements if the employer will be using an outside consumer reporting agency to conduct the search. Thus, if the employer uses an outside company to conduct the social media search, then compliance with the written consent and disclosure obligations of the FCRA will need to be followed. The outside consumer reporting agency will typically supply those necessary forms for the employer’s use to give to an employee/prospective employee before the search occurs, but I would recommend that a quick legal review of the paperwork be done by counsel to make sure the supplied documents are compliant with the FCRA.
Alternatively, if an employer plans to do a search of social media sites itself, it need not meet the requirements of the FCRA.
Nevertheless, whether utilizing either of the above referenced methods, doing searches of an employee/candidate’s social media sites can place an employer in a precarious situation. For one thing, there is a lot of maliciously planted information about persons on the internet so the searcher must be very careful in sifting through what is truthful (and what is not truthful) information about a candidate. Moreover, sometimes, the employer will learn things about a candidate on the internet that it is legally prohibited from knowing during the interview process, and this could lead to unexpected trouble for the employer.
For example, under the law, you cannot ask prospective employment candidates whether they either have a disability, or to disclose their age. By searching social media sites, the prospective employer can, even if not explicitly seeking such information, unwittingly gain knowledge of such prohibited information that should legally have no bearing on the hiring decision. The danger in that scenario lies in the following: if the prospective employee is ultimately denied employment, and learns that the employer found out things about him/her by doing a social media search that reveals legally off limits information like the above, the prospective employee might conclude that consideration of the prohibited information led to the adverse employment decision, even when it did not, and now the employer is embroiled in an unwanted failure to hire lawsuit. No employer would want to find itself in that type of situation ever.
Similarly, here is another common example of an employer web search that could also cause unexpected legal problems. While legally it might be appropriate for the employer to search for current and past civil law cases involving the candidate in a public area of the internet, if the employer decides to not hire the candidate because of a previous lawsuit filed under, say the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), the employer now could be sued for retaliation for withholding a job offer because the prospective employee exercised a protected right to file suit under the NJLAD. Again, another unwanted (and unexpected) situation for an employer.
As these examples therefore show, any employer doing social media searches must do them carefully to avoid the possibility of this kind of unwanted legal peril. If an employer still wants to do social media searches despite knowledge of the above risks, here are some recommended guidelines.
First, access social media sites only after the candidate is interviewed and only if truly interested in that candidate. Second, the employer must be consistent in conducting such searches-if you do it for one candidate, they have to be done for all candidates. Inconsistent and selective use of searches could otherwise give rise to discrimination claims. Third, document what is considered (and by implication what was not considered.) Fourth, the employer must verify the information obtained before using it, especially where the information comes from a third party site as opposed to the candidate’s own site. Finally, the search function itself should be centralized and performed as an integrated part of the overall background check. In this regard, HR is the best positioned in the company to oversee such search activities. Furthermore, just as critically important, there should likewise be no searches conducted independently by hiring managers or anyone else so the employer has centralized control over the process.
Following the above guidelines should help in controlling the potential problems that could arise from the use of social media search efforts. But, in the end, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, the most legally effective way of avoiding unwanted problems in this area may actually be fighting the employer’s pressing urge to want to learn too much about a potential employee/prospective employee’s background.
Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.