By Claire West

Businesses are routinely risking being faced with a potentially costly tribunal claim by carrying out background research on job candidates on websites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

In a survey of business owners and managers carried out by business support specialist, ELAS, some 40 per cent said they always Googled a job candidate before deciding on whether to interview or not.

A further 12 per cent said they often looked at applicants’ online activity, with a further 36 per cent admitting to doing so occasionally. Only two per cent said they had never looked up a candidate online.

Yet employment lawyers warn that, no matter how widespread the practice, judging candidates on anything other than what they’ve offered of themselves by way of CV, application form or interview is fraught with danger.

Peter Mooney, head of employment law at ELAS, said: “Googling candidates isn’t anything new, but it is alarming the extent to which recruiters are now using what they can see online to make a decision about hiring someone.

“Of course, the more information people put online, the greater the risk that a potential future employer will take a dislike to any part of it and decide not to recruit.

“The danger comes when decisions are made based on information which has nothing to do with a candidate’s ability to do the job in question — which I would suggest is most of the time.”

Mr Mooney explained that, in order for any recruitment process to be fair and robust, all candidates must be treated equally — and the level of information available online can vary hugely between one applicant and another.

The result, according to Mr Mooney, is that it is almost impossible to prove that any process which has been influenced by online research has been fair.

He added: “People have been researching candidates online for years, and over that time, it has almost become acceptable behaviour.

“In many ways it is no different from being influenced by a conversation in the pub or an unofficial reference over the phone.

“But while anybody who still behaves like that knows that they are breaking the rules, recruiters think it’s somehow OK to reject candidates based on what they said on Twitter about last week’s TV, or how they behave on a night out according to Facebook.

“If employers want to protect themselves from future tribunal claims, then they need to stop basing decisions on online tittle-tattle.”