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On the surface, one would think job applicants wouldn't want their prospective new bosses to know how drunk they got at a party the night before the job interview. But just how could a potential employer discover such things? Easily. It's written all over the applicant's Facebook wall for everybody to see and comment on. (Girl, you barfed behind the couch? OMG! BTW, remember when you got drunk and broke the vase at my mom's house? LOL!)

Online social networks are virtually an information gold mine for human resources professionals and others who do the hiring. In fact, in a survey conducted by the executive search firm ExecuNet, three quarters of respondents claimed they use the web--and social media in particular--to screen potential job applicants. So, who's LOL-ing now?

Using social networks as an employee-research tool is commonplace today, offering HR professionals instant access to all sorts of information about job candidates (and current staff). And--as with all advances in business--some built-in challenges and previously unseen complications are coming to light.

One of those challenges is making sure the search for a good employee doesn't step on the toes of government bodies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Problems can arise when recruiters begin to use specific social networking platforms as hiring tools without first considering the internet population--and therefore the labor pool--that is most likely to use such a site.

Taleo, an on-demand talent management service provider, recently published "Social Network Recruiting: Managing Compliance Issues." The report raises the possibility that by using social networks to fill job positions, companies might risk lawsuits on the basis of discrimination. 

For instance, Quantcast found that LinkedIn's membership rolls include only 5 percent African Americans and 2 percent Latino members. That compares to a total US population of 12.8 percent African Americans and 15.4 percent Latino. At the very least, those numbers do not reflect the demographics of the general population. At worse, some people might call that disparate treatment. (If hiring managers limit themselves to LinkedIn, it could be perceived as having an unjustified adverse impact on minorities).

Some experts argue that those who source job seekers from network sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook might expect to face lawsuits over race, age, gender, disability or even sexual preference in the near future. This type of information is frequently evident on social network sites. While rejecting a candidate for personal characteristics that might point toward poor judgment or an unsafe job environment makes sense, there's no way to show that any of the information uncovered will be relevant to the job being offered.

Problems arise if that candidate is eliminated from consideration for a job and decides to take legal action. The burden is on the employer to prove discrimination--or an intimate peek into the candidate's personal life--had no part in the decision.

Despite these concerns, social networking sites remain one of the fastest ways to gain insight into a candidate's qualifications. So how does one go about using social media as an employment tool without breaking any laws or interfering with anyone's civil rights? As of this writing, there aren't any laws or guidelines from government agencies covering the use of social networks for hiring, but according to Taleo, there are some common sense guidelines you should consider following:

  • Ask yourself whether the use of social networks to screen candidates is necessary, or if an alternate approach will work just as well.
  • Avoid using social networks as a sole means for advertising jobs unless combined with other employee referral programs, then any question of discriminatory practices can be mitigated.
  • Maintain comprehensive records (these may come in handy should government auditors seek information on hiring practices).
  • Recruiters should recognize and dismiss information that isn't relevant to the job, as well as any salacious details garnered off the internet.

And for goodness sakes, pass the word to your employees, friends and especially family members that every detail or drama of your life doesn't have to be embedded online for the world to read.