Last reviewed 29 September 2016

All employers have a life outside of their work and, importantly, all employees have a right to a private life outside of their work life. Those are two truths that all employers should encourage if they are to have a healthy workforce which returns to work after an evening, weekend or holiday away refreshed ready to give their best to their job, says Gudrun Limbrick.

In the vast majority of cases, a person’s home situation, hobbies and views are of little concern to his or her employer and may indeed be a complete unknown. However, where people are choosing to make what could be considered to be their private lives public, employers are naturally taking an interest.

The sudden popularity of social media has taken the world by storm. The switch from the time when the internet was unimaginable to the current world in which life without the internet is unimaginable has been incredibly rapid, taking place within just a couple of decades for most of us. One of the big changes (and one that arguably we could not have foreseen) is how happy individuals are to make aspects of their lives public — news, photographs, thoughts, political views — available for anyone in the world to see. This can be through any online form — such as personal websites — but is largely through social media such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, You Tube and so forth.

One area in which this form of activity is having a perhaps unintended impact is in employment. A recent study of 4000 human resource professionals (conducted by Monster and YouGov), found that 56% of respondents said that a prospective employee’s online activity influenced their recruitment decisions. On the other side of the equation, 48% of job seekers said that they were aware of how their online activity could appear to potential employees.

From an employee’s perspective, this is a potentially excellent way to get ahead of other candidates. A comprehensive LinkedIn profile, for example (www.linkedin.com), can be tailored to demonstrate suitability for the employment being sought and can give extra information that cannot be included in a standard CV. Any job application can directly refer a prospective employer to the LinkedIn profile. This is in the process of becoming standard practice for any employee and, importantly, is entirely within the control of the individual: only the information the individual chooses to be online, is online and it is straightforward to keep it up to date and add extra information such as references. For an employer, the LinkedIn profile is a useful source of additional information which it is easy and immediate to access.

This, however, is not the end of the story. Not all potential employees are careful with other areas of their online activity. The study found that only 20% of young people were very aware of how their online profiles could potentially impact on job applications and a third were not aware of it or said they did not care whether it did or not. Employers are not only increasingly likely to have a look at an individual’s online activity but it is likely that they are going to be increasingly sophisticated about how they go about it. Software is becoming available which can automate the whole process and come up with patterns of key themes and words which can give an indication to employers as to whether they are a good fit for the company or not.

Most social media is set to be at least partially public and an individual user has to take measures to change the settings to private. Additionally, there has been a significant change in our attitudes to privacy with many users of social media actively desiring as many public hits, likes and shares as possible on even the most mundane of posts about matters which are essentially very private in nature. While some social media users undoubtedly make their activity public accidentally, or unknowingly, others are, of course, doing so deliberately.

Thirty-six per cent of the human resource personnel included in the survey said that they had taken the decision not to interview a prospective employee or rejected an interviewee after seeing his or her social media activity. An employee could argue that their online activity is of no relevance to their job and is of no business to their potential new employer in the same way that a private life has always been a right for the majority of employees in this country. They can also, often rightly, argue, that it is all too easy to take public aspects of a social media profile out of context and employers are in danger of jumping to wrong conclusions about an individual. With this logic, they are free to continue posting as much information about themselves as they like on social media without it saying anything about how good or otherwise they will be at any given job.

For an employer, the ability to Google (other search engines are available) any prospective candidate is too easy to resist. Most employers are also very aware that their competitors, customers and partners are also able to carry out the same searches on their employees and this can potentially reflect well, or otherwise, on the image and reputation of the company as a whole. A vegan café may not want to employ someone who boasts about his or her nightly rabbit-poaching exploits as it could upset customers.

There may be tangible reasons why an employer might want to reject certain candidates in this way — an individual who continually posts semi-naked photos of an erotic nature for example, might be deemed inappropriate to teach in a school of some standing as parents may be offended or concerned. More intangible reasons fall into the category of ensuring a good “cultural fit” between company and employee. This could include sharing political views, ethical outlook, hobbies and sense of humour. Employers using social media to “vet” candidates should consider having a written policy which gives guidance as to when candidates can legitimately be rejected as a result of online searches and when they cannot to ensure that there is fairness in the way in which each is treated.

It is, of course, true that online searches are not only being used by prospective employers but also by prospective employees. Serious candidates will not only research a company, a role and a locality online before making a decision about whether to apply but will also check the online profiles of interviewers and other key personnel and will arm themselves withl as much information, personal or otherwise, as they can find.

Whether it is right or wrong that employers take essentially personal online details about an individual into account when making employment decisions, it is certainly happening and it is going to be a more and more significant part of the recruitment process as employers would be foolish not to take advantage of this vast, free information resource. Employers need to make policy decisions about how they use this information and hopeful employees need to ensure that all aspects of their online presence shows them in the best light possible to help them secure their ideal job.