The ethics of using social media to recruit

Posted by | November 19, 2019 | Employers, Recruiting tips

The ethics of using social media to recruit

In my last adventure down the rabbit hole aka the internet, I followed a path that sign-posted a number of reasons why someone’s social media presence may be holding them back from getting their dream job.

I discovered that according to the Careers NZ website, 70% of employers will check out an applicant’s social media history before offering a candidate an interview. Now this wee statistic rang an alarm bell for some people (including my own), who questioned the ethics of employers doing this.


The Human Right Act

The NZ Human Rights Act of 1993 sets out a comprehensive list of things that you cannot be discriminated against, including gender, marital status, religious beliefs, age and disability. The full list can be found here courtesy of the Human Rights Commission.  Section 23 of the Act states that:

It shall be unlawful for any person to use or circulate any form of application for employment or to make any inquiry of or about any applicant for employment which indicates, or could reasonably be understood as indicating, an intention to commit a breach of section 22.”

The Act also states that you cannot use someone’s present, past or future aspirations as grounds for not employing them either.


So, is it legal for recruiters to actually delve into jobseekers’ social media profiles? 

Full disclosure, I am not a lawyer so the following opinion cannot be used in a court of law, but I would like to think that most recruiters will interpret the Act as it is intended i.e. to not prevent someone from gaining employment because of personal circumstance.

I am therefore guessing (because I am a blogger, not a journalist) that employers who use social media to screen job candidates are simply looking to see if what a jobseeker has said in their CV matches with what the internet says they do e.g. a jobseekers states that they can work with anyone, yet their twitter feed suggests they share public posts stating how much they hate working with other people.


Is it ethical?

Umm, yes and no.

Employers can only research what individuals have allowed to be shared in the public arena. So at a basic level, all that is being done is undertaking an online reference check before the interview. However, if a jobseeker can prove their application was dismissed from a list of interviewees because of discrimination, then the employer could face a human rights complaint.

One of the tests I use to decide as to whether I think something is ethical or not, is to ask myself – how would I feel if this was done to me? Of course this doesn’t work for everyone, but it is something for employers and recruitment agencies to consider, if they don’t already.

There is also an argument to be made about whether or not it is ok to judge someone based on a post that is often without context or a right of reply. One photo of saving a glass of wine, instead of their dignity, as they stumble awkwardly at the races years ago does not an alcoholic make, nor does it imply poor character, as the viewer has no idea of what happened five minutes before or five minutes after.


So how can employers use social media as part of their recruitment process without unfairly judging someone in the process?

Below are some tips from a fellow employer:

  • Clarify what part social media checks play in your recruitment process and develop a standardised approach to screening that does not include criteria that would put you at odds with the Human Rights Act.
  • Hold the job interview first, based on the person’s CV and how well they answered your job description. Then use social media screening as a final check, with the applicant’s consent. Waiting until after the interview will help reduce bias and pre-conceived judgements of the candidate.
  • Make sure someone else in the organisation (or a third party), who is not responsible for hiring or interviewing, undertake the background checks based on criteria that matches the job description. Information passed on to the decision maker is also only based on the requirements of the vacancy.
  • Keep records of the social media data that has been used in the consideration of the suitability of the candidate. Take screenshots to document the reasons why you have rejected a candidate due to the social media screening.
  • Remember to keep the Human Rights Act in mind if you decide to go ahead and delve into someone’s social media profile before giving them an interview. The Act is currently under review and changes may be made that make pre-screening illegal altogether.
  • Let perspective employees know that you use social media to screen applicants. That way the playing field is slightly more even and they can choose whether they want to work for you based on your recruitment methods.

My final two cents on this subject – 30% of the employers surveyed by Career New Zealand do not use social media to screen candidates before an interview. Perhaps they think the old fashioned method still works perfectly well in finding the right person for the job, and prefer to let the face to face interview and references from previous employers do the talking instead.

Let us know in comments your thoughts on the ethics of candidate screening using social media, and whether you use it or not to inform your recruitment.



About Carolyn Brown

Carolyn enjoys writing stuff that engages readers, makes them feel like they are in a conversation with the screen, and doesn’t require a dictionary on standby to make sense of what she has written.

When she is not creating content, she likes to keep busy volunteering for various not for profits; throwing sticks to her step-dog as they walk along North Beach in Christchurch, and enjoying the company of friends. If you would like to know more, head on over to her website or email her at [email protected]

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One Response to “The ethics of using social media to recruit”

  1. Comment made by NelsonPasifika on Nov 19th 2019 at 11:43 am:

    Great article – timely and thought-provoking.

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