Networking websites can present risks and pitfalls during hiring

  • Published
  • By Capt. Christopher R. Lanks
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Judge Advocate
The rapid growth of social-networking sites creates several risks to employers, supervisors and commanders. A 2010 survey by found that 45 percent of employers use networking sites, such as Facebook, to evaluate prospective candidates. Employers, like the Air Force, must be cautious in making personnel decisions based on a review of these networking websites.

Personnel decisions may not be based on age, race, religious preferences, national origin, marital status and sexual orientation. This is why during job interviews employers don't ask questions that may reveal this type of information. However, in just a few seconds reviewing a person's Facebook or MySpace page can reveal tons of information, such as a person's age, race, religious preferences and sexual orientation. An employer or supervisor who views this information could then be subject to discrimination or retaliation complaints.

For example, what if a potential hire discloses on her social media profile that she is homosexual, is married, or is from Venezuela? If the potential hire does not get the job and knows that her profile was reviewed by the employer, she may allege discrimination. Even if the employer made the decisions based on permitted factors, such as experience and education, the employer will nonetheless have to prove that there were legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for not hiring the individual. This may become very difficult as courts may second-guess the employer's decision once there is knowledge that the employer reviewed the individual's social media profile. Even if the employer did not consider this information during its hiring decision, disproving the opposite becomes very difficult. The same is true for supervisors who make personnel decisions every day. The supervisor's decisions may be scrutinized once employees learn that the supervisor has accessed the social media profiles of employees.

You might be asking yourself how this applies to the military workforce. Civilian personnel are critical to the mission here and many more are being hired to support the mission. These future employees go through a hiring process that includes interviews with the selecting official. This process may be for new employees or current employees applying for a new position. If the civilian employee does not get selected for a position and they know that the selecting official recently visited their social media profile, it may lead to a formal equal opportunity complaint alleging discriminatory hiring practices. The same may be said for supervisors who need to take some form of adverse action on an employee. Adverse actions are tough enough without throwing into the mix potential allegations of discrimination, which may be alleged if the supervisor recently learns information from social networking sites.

Employers and supervisors must be aware of these pitfalls and risks before utilizing the benefits of networking websites. While there is no clear answer how to avoid the legal risks associated with viewing these sites, one thing is for certain -- employers need to have policies in place to ensure personnel decisions are made for the right reasons and that the reasons are well documented.