Social Networks: Friend or Foe?

A host of states are rushing to prohibit employers from requiring — and in some states, even requesting — that job candidates hand over their Facebook and other social media information so the employers can peek into their personal lives.

But what if the candidate wants to connect with a recruiter? Should the recruiter accept the request? If so, how does the recruiter protect the organization from claims of discrimination later if the candidate is not hired — even if the decision had nothing to do with any personal information the candidate posted on social media? What other social media policies should employers follow so they won’t cross the line?

Recruiters and outside experts alike said it’s paramount to find the right balance when using social media so employers can continue to attract and engage highly sought-after candidates through networking, but not in ways that infringe upon the candidates’ rights or expose employers to potential liability.

The issue of employers demanding to be connected hit national headlines in February 2011, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland posted a video of a state correctional officer expressing fear that he would lose his prison job if he did not submit his Facebook name and password to his employer. While employees of Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services could voluntarily submit that information, the state agency temporarily suspended the practice to review its policies, but lawmakers across the country immediately jumped on the issue.

Connecting Increases Risk

To date, more than a dozen states have enacted laws banning employers from demanding Facebook user names and passwords, and similar legislation has been introduced or is pending in most other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the state laws exempt cases in which employers have a legitimate business reason to do so, such as a police department or financial institution investigating whether candidates have committed a theft or other crime, said Spencer Hamer, a partner in law office Michelman & Robinson’s Los Angeles office.

But the laws are silent on whether employers can accept Facebook friend requests from candidates. Hamer doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “Employers connecting to a candidate’s social media page, or researching the candidate on the Internet, do so at their own peril — even if the candidate requests it,” he said. “Such searches increase the risk that a spurned candidate, seeking for an explanation other than lack of qualifications, could accuse the employer of discrimination.”

Examples of protected categories that could be implicated by Internet searches include physical and mental disabilities, medical conditions, political activities, sexual lifestyles, marital status, race and ethnicity. Hamer said information that employers are legally prohibited from seeking at the application stage could be revealed with a few keystrokes.

“In addition, information found online often has little relevance as to job-related qualifications. Thus, employers should proceed with caution in this area,” he said. “And if they do use the Internet to evaluate candidates, they need to be prepared to offer a documented, job-related reason as to why the candidate was not selected.”

Dan Cooke, vice president of talent acquisition and delivery at IOD Inc., is in such a competitive talent market for medical records coders, he’s taking his chances and accepting Facebook friend requests from any coder he could possibly recruit. IOD, a health information management consulting company based in Green Bay, Wis., is fighting for coders who are well-versed in the latest Medicare coding system, as IOD’s clients need to be in compliance by October 2014 to continue to be reimbursed for patient treatment costs under Medicare.

“It’s difficult to find candidates who can do this — it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Cooke said. “We are forced to seek out passive job seekers — someone who is not actively seeking a new employer but may actually be interested in opportunities with a new employer. … We use a few forms of social media to network with these candidates.”

While there are a few Facebook groups for coders based in large metropolitan areas, the candidates’ skill sets within those groups typically have not been a good match for IOD’s clients’ needs, he said. In other instances, candidates have reached out to Cooke on Facebook, but he said he maintains professional boundaries on the social network.

“I don’t want to miss the opportunity to connect with a great candidate,” he said. “I have accepted ‘friend’ requests from candidates, but I never communicate via the news feed. I send a private message to the candidate instead. On Facebook I’m not concerned about liability because candidates freely reach out to me. I post a job, and candidates respond. I use it strictly for marketing, and I always keep it professional.”

Cooke said he prefers to use LinkedIn to find passive job seekers, and he markets on that site by posting updates so candidates get email alerts about the company. His team also posts ads in LinkedIn’s job bank, starting at $200, “but in my experience the response has been low.” His firm shied away from LinkedIn’s large enterprise packages, which range from $10,000 to $30,000, because of the cost.

To date, Cooke and his team have not found value using Twitter for recruiting. “It seems the type of candidates we’re recruiting do not have or use Twitter accounts.” But he plans to explore Google Plus.
“It will be another way to network using groups to talk about recruiting and the company,” Cooke said. “Google Plus might eventually surpass Facebook, but that’s yet to be determined.”

Stacie Mallen, vice president of human resources at medical device company Ulthera Inc., does not “friend” candidates on Facebook as a practice, but sometimes she will accept friendship requests from candidates on her individual professional Facebook page that is separate from her personal Facebook page. That page is also linked to Ulthera’s consumer-facing Facebook page, and if candidates “like” that page, Mallen and her team can look at their friends, depending on their privacy controls.

“Sometimes it’s easier for candidates to communicate through Facebook, which has a better mobile app that can more easily be read than LinkedIn,” she said. “LinkedIn makes people jump through more hoops and move through their messaging site to make contact. It also sometimes requires a paid upgrade to message directly, which not everyone has access to see.”

Promoting the Brand
Mallen uses her professional Facebook page to post motivational comments and photos about Ulthera’s employees, to highlight their “purpose-filled lives, so candidates can connect to the culture of our organization.”

For example, she posted photos of an event where some of the firm’s employees volunteered to help move a school that taught a lot of homeless children, as well as photos of employees participating in a local 12-mile Tough Mudder run. Candidates and employees who are friends with her can “like” or comment on the photos. But Mallen draws the line on liking or commenting on candidates’ pages, such as when they post they got married or had a baby.

“It really boils down to managing risk and liability,” she said. “You’re still a professional, and that opens the door to their world. While it’s their option if they ask to be your friend, you still have to be conservative how you react. If you post something or react to something on their Facebook page and you do not hire them, you have to keep in mind the potential implications.”

Mallen doesn’t use Twitter professionally because she said it gets into the same space as Facebook. She prefers to use LinkedIn, where Ulthera’s profile is linked to its consumer-facing brand pages and is integrated into the company’s application tracking system, Open Hire. The platform allows Mallen and her team to search and pull candidates’ LinkedIn profiles, and candidates also can access the applicant tracking system directly through Ulthera’s LinkedIn page, or by connecting to any of its employees on LinkedIn. LinkedIn also sells recruiter packages through which Mallen and her team can reach out to second-degree connections.

“Recruiting is an art form, so I first contact an employee who is connected to a potential candidate where I have a connection, to see if that person would be a good culture fit for our organization,” she said. “Then in my phone call or email with the candidate, I would drop the name of our employee, and let them know they spoke very highly of them, to make the opportunity compelling.”

She said someone who is a hot commodity will get a lot of calls from recruiters. But if the candidate has already connected to someone within the organization, that creates leverage.

Karen Samford, lead talent acquisition partner at Atlanta-based digital marketing technology provider Silverpop, also retrieves candidates’ LinkedIn profiles via Open Hire, but now the platform also enables candidates to apply for jobs directly on LinkedIn. The platform also allows them to link to the company’s Facebook page, Samford’s blog posts on Silverpop’s career site and her tweets.

“I especially like to tweet because most people following me on Twitter are doing it for professional reasons,” she said. “I often tweet something as simple as, ‘We have a great new opportunity in London for a client support manager,’ and I’ll put a link to the website.”

Samford also experiments with alternative social networks such as trade association networking websites or Meetup, which like-minded people use to schedule informal meetings. She recently emailed the leader of a group of Atlanta-area software developers who used Meetup to schedule regular meetings to chat about the industry, and asked the leader to mention to the group that she was looking for candidates. She received “three good applications” from that request.

While sometimes Samford looks at the Facebook profiles for candidates who have connected with Silverpop’s Facebook or career page, she said she doesn’t make it a practice because it can be good to keep personal and professional lives in separate buckets. “We should only be focusing on the candidates’ professional skills and what they can bring to the company.”

Marketing recruiters like Samford are also increasingly looking to see if candidates communicate on blogs, to view their writing technique and idea formation prior to job interviews.

“Social media and the ways we look at it as a culture continue to change as new media comes about, and new ways to pull information from the Web become available,” she said. “All recruiters are starting to come into a phase where they are trying to stay away from Facebook, as they know it’s truly a social network and not a professional network.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at

Tips to Recruit on Facebook
While many employers are now reluctant to even accept Facebook friendship requests from candidates, there is still a place for recruitment on the social networking site, experts said.

Starbucks promotes job openings on its Facebook page, as most of the company’s applicants are also its customers, said Thomas Boyle, director of product marketing at SilkRoad Technology. He said it’s important for Starbucks to be part of the conversation and get its message out there, but not every social network is good for every company.
“Companies need to look at the demographics of each of those sites, as certain demographics prefer LinkedIn, such as older candidates for a professional services company, and more retail-based companies might be able to recruit from their consumer-branded pages on Facebook.”

Dan Finnigan, CEO of software company Jobvite, said Facebook provides an opportunity to show some company personality, which helps since today, job seekers shop for jobs the way they shop for clothes; they want to know if a company culture aligns with their interests.
“Post photos from company retreats, parties and events, showcase employee profiles, office photos and other internal-branded content,” he said. “Think of Facebook as an interactive, employer-brand advertisement.”

If a candidate requests a friendship, recruiters should limit their viewings to their public profiles, he said. “Just because you’re in an empowered position does not mean you get the house keys to snoop around their profile and messages.”
If a recruiter does accept a friendship request from a candidate, the recruiter needs to act responsibly and take status updates and other postings “with a grain of salt — don’t believe everything posted, but verify things,” said Allison Kruse, global digital talent manager for Aon Hewitt’s talent acquisitions solutions practice.
“If something does come up troubling, talk about it with the candidate or the employee, especially if it is something to do with the job,” Kruse said.
Many recruiters also create social media pages as individuals, to create their own brand in addition to corporate brands, but they must always remember to be real people on those pages, she said. “I liken it to being as they would at a cocktail party versus behind a podium at a professional networking event, saying, ‘I’m hiring! I’m hiring!’ That’s not a real person, and they will get ignored really quickly. Network as they would at a cocktail party — ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so, what’s your name? What are you interested in?’”
— Katie Kuehner-Hebert

“Sometimes it’s easier for candidates to communicate through Facebook … LinkedIn makes people jump through more hoops and move through their messaging site to make contact.”
— Stacie Mallen, vice president of human resources, Ulthera Inc.