The unescapable role social media plays in modern life means intimate details of the personalities, penchants and pastimes of even the most private people are readily available to the world at large. The question remains, how far can (and should) we use this information to judge job applicants?

There can be little doubt that social media is a potential gold mine of information for vetting job applicants. Facebook has over 1.47 billion daily active users with 4.75 billion items shared each day. There are 6,000 tweets sent every second and even the less prolific LinkedIn signs up over 120 new professionals per minute.

But before browsing through a candidate's snaps from their last night out at Follies it's important to take a minute to consider what information you need, how it links to the role you're considering and how useful it will ultimately be.

Anecdotally, employers take one of three approaches to the use of social media content in the recruitment process with the majority limiting this to sourcing candidates only. Some firms use social media throughout the entire process from sourcing to vetting and verification whilst at the other end of the spectrum some stay well clear hoping to avoid what they see as a potential minefield or having taken the view that the information is interesting but of little real value.

Sourcing candidates through social media sites such as LinkedIn makes good business sense as it allows you to find good quality candidates without having to pay a recruitment agency fee but generally speaking, with the advent of GDPR, employers should only use social medial profiles to screen applicants where there is a legal ground to do so (such as a legitimate interest), the profile is business-related and the information collected is necessary and relevant to assess the candidate’s ability to do the job.

Given all the above, a case can usually be made to rummage through a candidate’s Linkedin profile but it will be far more difficult to justify screening a candidate’s Facebook or Instagram profiles. Even if a case could be made and an enthusiastic applicant volunteered full access to their digital presence, the more fundamental question remains as to how useful this data is, particularly when weighed against the potential risks.

Social media profiles, by their nature, give employers access to information that would not be included (often intentionally) in a traditional recruitment process. Details such as the applicant's marital status, that they are a working mother or have a disability once in the knowledge of an employer are all ammunition for an unsuccessful candidate to complain of unlawful discrimination or (until disability discrimination legislation is introduced) questionable business practices. Even more fundamentally though there is the issue that delving into someone’s personal life leaves us far more exposed to making some bad recruitment decisions because of our own biases. Sometimes that may be a fairly innocent bias such as which football team we may support, or it may be more insidious in relation to sexuality, race or religion, information which could often quickly be established from posts made by a candidate on Facebook or Instagram. In all cases none of these factors have the slightest impact on an employee’s ability to do their job, but the fundamental problem is that once the information has been seen by a manager it cannot be unseen.

Ultimately, despite the wealth of information available only a small amount will be directly relevant and there are robust mechanisms in place to protect applicants. Younger applicants have grown up with a completely different notion of privacy and, almost inevitably, evidence of some of their indiscretions will persist online. Does this mean they can't perform their jobs Monday to Friday? Probably not. If you were judged on your private youthful (or not so youthful) indiscretions, would you be where you are now?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.