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What doctors should look for in job seekers’ social media presence

Medical practices can get information on potential employees from Facebook or Twitter, but they should know what to watch for and what’s off-limits.

By Karen Caffarini covered practice management issues during 2008-09 and writes for us occasionally on the topic. Posted June 3, 2013.

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As the medical director of a health services group that serves racially diverse patients in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, Ravi Grivois-Shah, MD, always conducts a quick search of physicians he’s interested in hiring on various social media sites and blogs to see if anything worrisome surfaces before offering them a position.

“I want to make sure what they say on those sites doesn’t go against our mission and they wouldn’t be an obvious embarrassment to the organization,” said Dr. Grivois-Shah, a family physician.

With the social networking site Facebook claiming 1 billion users and the business networking site LinkedIn touting 175 million users, experts say social media has become a part of just about everybody’s life. In considering hires, physicians are generally free to scour these kinds of sites for potential red flags or greater insight, as long as the information can be viewed publicly.

“What they find can be part of the decision-making process,” said Peter Cebulka, director of recruiting for physician staffing firm Merritt Hawkins. “I see it the same as a credit report.”

What is less acceptable — and in some states illegal — is requiring a job candidate to provide the password to their social media account, or using personal information protected by law against the candidate. But even with information that is available, experts said physicians need to have some idea what to look for before they search for a potential candidate’s social media sites.

Looking for “degrees of offensiveness”

Thirty-seven percent of companies use social networking sites to research job candidates, according to a 2012 nationwide survey by Harris Interactive. Fifteen percent of employers who do not use social media to research candidates said companies prohibit the practice. Eleven percent said they planned to start using social media to screen candidates.

Of those who use social media, 65% want to see if candidates present themselves professionally, 51% want to determine if a candidate is a good fit for the company culture, and 45% want to learn more about a candidate’s qualifications. Twelve percent said it’s to look for reasons not to hire a candidate. The survey, conducted for CareerBuilder, included more than 2,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals in various industries and company sizes.

Jack Smith, president of a Milwaukee recruiting firm, said physician practices search social media because they are looking for consistency in culture and want to determine that the person they are hiring has the same qualities they think that person has.

“Someone applying for a receptionist job might have some really weird stuff out there on social media that could be harmful to the interest of the practice. That’s fair game,” Smith said.

What’s not as important, he said, is whether the candidate posted a photo of him or herself holding a beer at a party or appeared argumentative on Twitter. “There are degrees of offensiveness. I don’t think the majority of employers would find this useful,” he said.

Dr. Grivois-Shah said there are processes to vet candidates for professional and criminal misconduct. But he said social media searches can be useful to make sure a potential new physician hasn’t made any inflammatory remarks or isn’t a member of a hate group — two factors that would be harmful to a health care organization whose mission is to be culturally sensitive and patient-centered to a diverse population.

Smith said the more important the position being filled, the more important it is to conduct a thorough search, including on social media.

Not all social media accounts are open to everyone, though. Candidates can choose not to connect with a potential employer. In many states, the employer can’t press them to change their minds.

It is illegal in eight states, including California, Illinois and Pennsylvania, for an employer to require an employee or applicant to provide a personal user name and password to a social media account, said Mark Terman, a partner in a Los Angeles law firm’s labor and employment practice group. He said practices in other states should expect it to become illegal there eventually.

Cebulka, who also serves on Merritt Hawkins’ social media thought leadership committee, said he’s finding that most medical practices aren’t requesting social media accounts. Instead, they might do an online search to see whether a doctor has a medical or health care-related blog and look at sites that give a brief work biography.

He said requesting a physician candidate’s social media account could backfire on the practice.

“There’s such a shortage of physicians. They’re interviewing the practice as well. They may find your request to be intrusive,” he said.

Social media search do’s and don’ts

Terman said while practices want an early warning of serious misconduct or unsavory behavior, there is a legal risk of gaining access to information that the practice can’t use legally in the hiring process, such as ethnicity, religion, disability and pregnancy.

He recommends that practices that want to use social media during the interview process hire a third party with a background in screening job candidates to conduct the search, because that person would know state laws on the matter. If the practice wants to conduct the search itself, Terman said it should assign the task to someone in the human resources department (if it has one) and limit the search to business sites such as LinkedIn, where information relevant to the job is more likely to be found.

Smith recommended that the search go back no further than 10 years. Findings before that aren’t as important, he said. Follow-up calls may be needed to verify some information, especially if an item was posted by someone who could have a grudge against the applicant.

Some social media venues are more worth exploring than others. Nate Gross, MD, co-founder of the physician-only social media network Doximity, said Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn aren’t relevant to most people in the medical field. He said it would be better to search for a physician on a site geared only for physicians.

Dr. Grivois-Shah said Facebook is a good social media venue for his purposes because people post personal information about themselves. He said Twitter comments are too short to glean much information from, and LinkedIn is too benign.

With so many on social media, is it a red flag if a candidate has no social media presence? Cebulka said it could be seen as a negative that the candidate isn’t tech savvy enough to maintain a social media account.

Smith, however, said it shouldn’t matter. He said some of the best candidates he has recruited in the health care field didn’t want to be on a social media site.

“But it’s very rare for someone to be off the grid completely,” he said.

Karen Caffarini covered practice management issues during 2008-09 and writes for us occasionally on the topic.

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