Fifth of employers reject candidates due to their online activity

Organisations should be careful of rejecting prospective employees based on discriminatory factors, say legal experts

One in five employers have rejected a prospective job candidate because of something they have seen in their online activity, claims new research from the YouGov Omnibus; but organisations need to ensure they are keeping within the law.

The most common reason for candidates being turned down from a job opportunity were for aggressive or offensive language – 75 per cent said this would discourage them from hiring someone. Over 70 per cent of employers would be put off by references to drug use, while more than half would consider not hiring someone because of bad spelling and grammar. Other reasons included: photos of drunk behaviour (47 per cent), political views/activity (29 per cent); general over-sharing of content (29 per cent); and vanity (26 per cent).

LinkedIn profiles are the most popular website for checking job candidates, with almost half of surveyed employers using the platform to screen potential employees, while 46 per cent look at Facebook and 28 per cent view Twitter.

Adam Pennington, employment law solicitor at Stephensons, said employers should be wary of admitting that applicants have been turned rejected from a job over reasons such as bad spelling or grammar. “What they may not know is that that individual suffers from dyslexia, for example, and are therefore opening themselves up to a claim for discrimination,” he said.

There is also a risk of potential employers jumping to conclusions over content published on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, he said. For example, a picture posted on Facebook could give the impression of an event or a certain behaviour which, in reality, is very different.  

“There is a grey area between where work finishes and what you are doing in your own time starts,” said Pennington. “Whatever a prospective employer chooses to base a decision on, in terms of whether they hire someone or not is up to them, but they need to be careful as far as the law is concerned that they aren’t making those decision based on any discriminatory factors.” They could also be falling foul of data protection laws, he added.

More than three quarters of decision makers in large organisations checked candidates’ social media accounts as part of the screening process, and 28 per cent of respondents had rejected a candidate based on comments or photos published on social media sites, the YouGov survey revealed. More than half of small organisations surveyed and 71 per cent of medium-sized companies also reported checking online activity. One in three survey respondents said they do not check on a candidate's social media.

A separate Twitter poll by People Management revealed that 33 per cent had rejected a candidate after checking their social media activity – 21 per cent had done so, but rarely, and 12 had rejected candidates on this basis plenty of times.

Rudy Sooprayen of YouGov Omnibus, said: “With one in five employers rejecting candidates because of their online activity, it is clear that many applicants have holed themselves below the waterline before they have even got close to an interview.

“While you can argue whether someone’s personal social media channels should be fair game when they are applying for jobs, the fact is that a lot of organisations are looking at candidates’ online activity. Applicants need to take as much care with their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles as they do with their CVs and covering letters.”

Dr Sybille Steiner, employment partner, Irwin Mitchell, said that as recruiters, employers and candidates are all likely to be using social media it makes sense that some employers may be tempted to use the vast amount of information available to them on social media websites as part of their screening process.

“On the one hand, candidates should note that employers are likely to look at their social media profiles to see how they present themselves to the outside world,” she said. “But an employer must not discriminate during the recruitment process and must therefore ensure that taking social media comments into account does not amount to or result in discrimination.”