Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

In today’s digital age it’s almost impossible to miss a job applicant’s social media pages in an online search.

The big question is: Should an employer use them to screen applicants?

According to a survey last year by CareerBuilder, 52 percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates, and while this practice is becoming more commonplace, companies still need to take safeguards to protect themselves.

“As with any recruitment tools companies use, employers need to make sure they’re applying fair and equal hiring practices, and that candidates are not screened out because of protected information learned through social media,” says Pete Jansons, head of CareerBuilder’s small-business unit in Chicago.

Still, these days it’s difficult to ignore social media.

“Employers want to cast as broad a net as possible to reach as many potential candidates as they can, and they are increasingly harnessing social media as part of their recruitment strategy,” he adds. And with all the social tools available, “it’s easier to find out who a candidate really is behind the résumé and cover letter and lessen the risk of hiring the wrong candidate.”

In fact, a study four years ago found that looking at test subjects’ Facebook pages even for 5 to 10 minutes could provide insight into how they’d perform on the job based on some key personality traits such as emotional stability.

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“Their profiles are definitely a good indicator of their personality types, and these personality characteristics do relate to how they do on the job,” says Don Kluemper, lead author of that study and assistant professor of management at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Still he doesn’t advocate using Facebook for employment screening.

“We weren’t weighing all the legal issues, we were trying to evaluate the predictive ability for Facebook to be relevant in the job context,” says Kluemper, who is doing research on LinkedIn and how it relates to the recruitment and selection process.

The only employers who should perhaps consider it are those who need to do very rigorous background checks, and they should seriously weigh the pros and cons, he says, adding, “I think the cons are too great.”

For one, candidates could claim they weren’t hired because of something discovered in the employer’s search.

Keith Gutstein, a partner at the Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck law firm in Woodbury, says that’s why it’s important for employers to have guidelines if using social media to screen applicants.

Have someone other than the company decision maker do the screening, or hire an outside third party to do it, he suggests.

Give that person guidelines to feed you only information that’s relevant and nondiscriminatory, Gutstein says. Specifically, you don’t want to know about an applicant’s membership in any protected class, such as their race, religion or sexual orientation, he says. The person doing the search may even want to keep a copy of the information that was viewed, he adds.

Establish legitimate criteria for the position and make your decision based upon that criteria, says Ralph Somma, an employment attorney in Babylon.

Also don’t cross any boundaries. Some websites such as LinkedIn are intended for recruitment purposes. But don’t request to friend an applicant on Facebook, he advises.

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The CareerBuilder survey found that 35 percent of employers who screen via social networks have requested to “be a friend” or follow candidates with private accounts.

Still, this should be avoided, Somma says, and candidates should be mindful of what they post on social media, “because it’s out there for the entire world to see.”