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Social media screening: What happens in cyberspace never goes away

Social media can be a useful tool for potential employers, as valuable insights into the public and online personality of a candidate can be gleaned from past and current behaviour shared on a public platform. Annelize van Rensburg, Director, Executive Search, Signium Africa, looks at social media screening from an employer and employee’s perspective, and what both should know.

A recent global study found that 67% of employers screen job candidates through social networks, which could give a candidate a leg up - but could also disqualify them from a dream job.

However, people who sign up for social media platform use are warned about the type of content the various platforms find acceptable and that they should secure their own privacy.

Just as those in the talent placement industry understand each platform’s privacy settings, individuals should undertake their own social media audit periodically. Everyone with a mobile phone is effectively a “citizen journalist” and will often share information about themselves or colleagues that would not be widely known were it not for social media.

Social media users should review their posts prior to clicking “send” to determine whether their online communications pose a reputational risk, not only to themselves but to their current or future potential employers. Topics that include politics, race, gender, religion and more can be easily misinterpreted. In particular, a post can be offensive or insulting by implication.

These may well be career-limiting posts, especially when they fall foul of laws and civil decency, whether by mistake or design.

When it comes to social media laws in South Africa, individuals who contravene certain laws could face jail time and penalties. Not only can hate speech, libel and slander lead to serious legal trouble, it highlights characteristics no decent person or company wants to be associated with. For this reason, users are urged to keep their company details off their private profiles to reduce the possibility of reputational damage for employers.

Nobody can guarantee that a colleague or angry neighbour hasn’t posted something to social media that could sully a reputation, and candidates get this opportunity to speak up. Screening can also be really positive, such as where the public can see someone’s hobbies, volunteer work, sports, community leadership and general positive lifestyle.  

What candidates should know

Where executive search and leadership consulting firms can and do use social media screening - usually through professional companies or software - it’s done primarily to get an overview of a candidate.

Permission to screen a candidate is requested and the candidate signs acknowledgement and indemnity before their details are submitted for verification. This also ensures laws governing the process, including the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), are complied with.

Placing an executive in a C-suite position is a time-consuming and costly process, and firm-but-fair look at social media activities is just one small part of a bigger process. As executive search consultants, we give our clients enough data-points to make a very informed decision about a candidate. Between the interviews, references and screening, the overall view of a candidate is comprehensive.

Qualifications, behaviour, red flags

In signing indemnity, an individual gets an opportunity to note anything that may come up while conducting searches across all data points, not only social media, such as a police record for something as innocuous as a traffic fine.

An important part of screening is determining whether someone’s claimed qualifications are legitimate. University or college data will quickly flag someone who may be claiming a degree that doesn’t exist. According to the law, this constitutes fraud and is a chargeable offence.

Social media is also likely to be the place where someone’s involvement in propaganda, rioting and even job losses due to the posting of hate speech are noted and shared widely.

Not everything that causes issues for people is a huge offence – some behaviours that seem innocuous could make a potential employer think twice, though. People may make character judgements based on a picture, and even a private email to colleagues read by more than two people may legally deem you a publisher. Today, digital communications with an electronic signature constitute legal documents.

With the festive season on our doorstep, many end-of-year party moments will end up on social media in picture and video format. Even while perfectly sober, jokingly behaving in a “drunk and disorderly” fashion could go viral, and no amount of explaining will get people to see the truth.

Note that - regardless of your age and work status – once this has reached the various corners of cyberspace, it is likely to be there forever. Removing published posts is a difficult and costly process so prevention, as usual, beats cure.

Be careful out there – where "a picture is worth a thousand words" used to mean we could rely on the validity of a photograph, our digital age can see your picture manipulated and published entirely out of context... and your dream job drifting away.

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