Can employers ever know too much about prospective employees? Presumably not, since the best way to avoid employment lawsuits is to hire well.  

And technology has rewritten the job interview playbook, with companies turning to social networking sites. However, those digital, cost-free and seemingly candid introductions to a potential applicant have pitfalls.

For starters, gathering information unrelated to job performance can be illegal. Under the federal and provincial human rights acts, an employer is prohibited from asking candidates about their

religion, sexual orientation, disability, criminal convictions, etc. Yet, given the explosion of social networking sites, an employer can easily find this information.

A recent study by CareerBuilder.com found that 29% of Canadian employers investigate applicants, while 26% of respondents say the information unearthed on social media sites

has, in some cases, deterred them from hiring. Those include: inappropriate photos; discriminatory comments; disparaging references to previous employers; reference to alcohol or drugs; and lying about qualifications.

Howard Breen, chairman emeritus of MacLaren McCann Canada and author of From a Toothpick Factory to the Corner Office, notes: “If you are on Facebook, please look at every photo and word that represents you. Is there anything that you wouldn’t want a future employer seeing? If the answer is yes, then change whatever you can immediately and be more responsible about what you are posting. Be aware of cameras in the room when you might not be representing yourself in an optimal light. Don’t allow recordings of today’s indiscretions haunt you in the future.”

While this information is willingly posted, there are legal risks for employers accessing it. Canada does not specifically prohibit searching social networking sites to conduct background checks, but employment and human rights law still applies in the digital world. If a candidate can prove s/he was not hired because of a ground prohibited under the Human Rights Code, the decision can be challenged.

Furthermore, if an employer relies primarily on social networking sites rather than traditional human resource tools, the employer is exposed to another type of discrimination claim because such websites appeal to a homogeneous population (the majority of users are Caucasians between 20 and 40 years old), the method disproportionately disadvantages groups less likely to use these tools.

Here are some simple tips to keep employers out of hot water:  

  • Institute an Internet hiring policy. Document your searches and ensure any decision to refuse a candidate based on such searches is job-related and outlined in the company’s hiring policy.
  • Ensure you have a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Don’t believe everything you read. If bothersome information is revealed through online searching, ask the candidate for an explanation; there may be a reason.
  •  Lastly, cut candidates a little slack -- we were all young once -- don’t let one crazy picture deter you from getting to know a promising employee.