As a member of the fire service, I know how important the selection of future firefighters can be. We are a very tight knit group. Once you get in, you’re in til retirement. These are the people we trust, spend the majority of our time with, and the people we rely on to save our life. That’s heavy stuff. To make sure we get the right person for the job, we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we select the right person. For some departments, that may mean turning to the applicant’s social media account for insights into the personality and potential. When you go to make the decision on your next firefighter, should you peruse their social media accounts?
If you follow the Shear on Social Media blog, you noticed recently that he posted a link about the Maryland Division of Corrections requirement for social media usernames and passwords during their interviews. The article posted gives a great overview of such a request for hiring decisions. Unfortunately, just like in the AMR settlement, the courts have not really settled the issue of whether or not organizations should be able to require social media account logins.
If the issue of social media account information has yet to be settled concretely, should your Fire Department use such a practice to hire new candidates. While the courts have not settled the issue of requiring login information in interviews, the courts have weighed in heavily regarding what information is appropriate and legal in making hiring decisions. Organizations, including Fire Departments, are only allowed to base their hiring decisions on job specific requirements. Further, these decisions must not in any way discriminate against any individuals in a protected class.
So what does that mean?
If you do decide to peruse a potential candidate’s Facebook account, you need to provide some assurance that the hiring decision will only be based on job specific information and will in no way discriminate against any individuals based on race, age, gender, religion, or disability. In principle, this sounds relatively simple. However, such assurances prove much more difficult in practice. To be safe, it would be best to have someone familiar with the requirements for hiring decisions review the social media accounts of the applicants rather than the selection committee as a whole. This person can serve as a buffer between the social media account and the selection committee by only passing along job relevant information.
The next question yet to be answered is what would be considered ‘job relevant information’ for the position of firefighter. It may seem somewhat simple for firefighters to proclaim that any information on a social media account (status updates, foul language, inappropriate pictures) to be ‘job relevant’ because of our requirement to uphold the public’s trust as firefighters. As a practice though, I tend to view job relevant information much more narrowly to avoid any undue influence.
Using social media can be a slippery slope. Once you take the step to begin using social media in your hiring process, you open a pandora’s box. The potential now exists for non-job relevant information to leak into the hiring process and hold your Fire Department open to legal action – particularly if any of the information could point to discrimination based on a protected class. To make sure your department is protected, you should include the use of social media accounts in your hiring policy before its too late.