Employment & Labour

Social media do’s and don’ts for job hunters

By Paul Russell, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

Most working Canadians are active on social media, but they may be unaware that prospective employers could be viewing their online activity, Toronto employment lawyer Amelia Phillips tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“We’re starting to see how important the online space is for people’s reputations and their livelihoods,” says Phillips, an associate with MacDonald & Associates.

“Our virtual presence is increasingly becoming our resumé,” she says.

Phillips points to a CBC story that states that 70 per cent of employers rely on social media as a tool to screen prospective candidates, based on a 2017 CareerBuilder survey.

Similarly, she says Monster.com has reported that in the United States, 83 per cent of employers recruit via social media, and 43 per cent of employers use social networks and search engines to vet job candidates.

“Maybe your posts show you are trying to have a baby, or that you have a certain immigrant status,” she says. “That kind of information might sway an employer’s decision. Not hiring someone due to their family status, immigrant status, race or religion is illegal.”

If a job applicant’s social media accounts are private, and therefore hidden from the general public, a potential employer could request the password, so they can see what the person has been posting, Phillips says.

She says the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) sets out the ground rules for how organizations that do “any work, undertaking or business that is under the legislative authority of Parliament” must handle personal information. Most federally regulated organizations would be captured under this definition, including airlines, banks, telecommunications and television broadcasters.

More importantly, Phillips says, s. 5(3) prohibits requiring passwords to social media accounts of job applicants.

“People looking for a job are in a position of vulnerability,” she says. “Because they need work, they might just hand over their password, as they feel that is the only way to get the job.”

Phillips says the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada started to apply the guidelines regarding PIPEDA as recently as Jan. 1, 2019, including directives about obtaining meaningful consent.

“I think it is great that the federal privacy commissioner has started to opine on things that can protect employees when it comes to their online privacy, though it is unclear how the privacy commission feels about employers checking social media accounts that are public,” she says.

Phillips hopes the federal regulations will provide “an important benchmark for provinces."

“It would be great if each province endorsed similar guidelines as the federal privacy commissioner, or had their own statement about social media,” she says.

Some provinces are starting to act in this area. According to a CBC article, Newfoundland and Labrador's privacy commissioner, Donovan Molloy, wants to hear from people who feel a potential employer checked their social media pages, without first obtaining consent from the applicant.

“If somebody reasonably believes that an employer has done that, a public-body employer, they can make a complaint to us and we can look into it,” the CBC reports.

In Ontario, Phillips says case law suggests that an employer is entitled to have social media policies and practices in place to “protect against reputational harm to the company that can be caused by an employee’s public social media presence.”

Withdrawing entirely from social media is not a wise option, she says.

“In practical terms, it looks a little suspicious,” Phillips says. “The reality is that we live in a very social world, where most people have an online presence. If someone looks for you online and there is nothing about you anywhere, they might wonder if you are hiding something.”

One option is to have both private and public social media accounts on the same platform, she says, “with your professional face on the public one.”

“Having no presence at all can be a red flag to an employer,” she says. “Particularly if you are a millennial, or younger."

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