Social media hiring: The risks and complexities

CRS Technologies' Nicol Myburg social media makes it easy to form inaccurate opinions of candidates.

“Love life! Drinking it all!” The moment a person hits 'Send' on a social media post it enters the public domain. Their plan to drink an entire bottle of champagne is now known by everyone who reads the post, from their best friend to their colleagues to the HR director of a company they want to work for. Social media posts can be used to form opinions about people and can potentially affect reputations and career options. It’s entirely legal for organisations to view the information, it’s in the public domain and does not contravene POPIA - the Protection of Personal Information Act - and it is equally fine to form opinions. What isn’t acceptable is being discriminatory.

It’s easy to form inaccurate conclusions and opinions of a person’s character or lifestyle, especially if these are based on their social media activity. For example, if someone is tagged in a photo where alcohol is present, the potential employer may think the person likes to party or has a drinking problem. The conclusion they draw will depend on the photos, but the consequences could be that the person doesn’t get the job.

The second consideration is who is sending the information. Those photos of you consuming alcohol may have been shared by a friend or a colleague who tagged everyone. The tags can be removed, the tarnish to your reputation cannot. Always ask – is this image one I want the world to see and does it represent who I am? For the employer, jumping to the wrong conclusion could open the door to discrimination - just because a person has a certain political stance or drinks at parties doesn’t mean they can’t do the job. Decisions cannot be accurately made based on a person’s social media profile.

When you share posts on social media, you relinquish the right to privacy by making information available to the public. While a company may not discriminate against you based on your social media profile, it’s difficult to prove that this is what it did. This can affect future employment and reputations. For employees of a company, however, the situation is different. If you share information that affects the rights of others, this could affect the company brand. This is particularly relevant in cases where the employee has listed the company they work for.

Employees can be dismissed for sharing information that violates a company’s code of conduct. One example of a grey area that’s arisen from this is cannabis usage. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to social media and the boundaries that protect employee and employer, and most incidents need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

As a general rule, use common sense when you post. Don’t tell the world where you work and don’t bring your company’s brand into disrepute. Be wary of having colleagues as social media friends as they will see what you post and can bring it to the attention of management. If you take a sick day but post pictures of yourself at the beach, you’re heading for trouble. You also need to be wary of what you ‘Like’ on social media because if those are seen as discriminatory you can be deemed guilty by association.

Employers do have access to what potential employees share in the public domain and employees permit them to see this information just by posting it. If you don’t want to be judged by your after-hours actions, don’t put them on social media. While POPIA is yet to come to South Africa, it will have no influence on how employers’ access social media posts in the public domain. So, be smart.

If you’re looking for a new job, wanting to grow your career or planning on staying with your current company, be careful about what you post in the public domain. Don’t link your activity to your employer, use a fake name if you really want to be active on social media, and most importantly, practise common sense.