Could your social media footprint destroy your career?

5th September 2018, Ian Roberts

There are no end of examples of people getting caught out by indiscreet social media posts or private messages that they thought would never see the light of day. With this in mind, we consider how concerned NQ candidates should be about their social media footprint.

Hill Dickinson revoked a student’s training contract earlier this year after conversations in a private WhatsApp group were leaked online. It followed screengrabs from a group called ‘Dodgy Blokes Soc’ being shared on Facebook by another student. The group comprised members of Exeter University’s Bracton Law Society and their exchanges included racist, sexist and homophobic messages.

Hill Dickinson said it was “deeply disturbed” by the messages, which they say did not represent the views of the firm.

Presumably, the news had students, trainees and junior lawyers across the country frantically scouring their messages and social media posts for potentially damaging content. If so, they were wise to do so. It has long been known that employers vet candidates’ social media posts. A report by recruitment firm CareerBuilder suggests that at least 70% of employers snoop on social media profiles.

Is it ethical or even legal for recruiters to do this? The new GDPR regulations impose strict rules on the collection of data but do not explicitly prohibit this type of behaviour.

Peter Church, a technology specialist at Linklaters, interviewed by the BBC on the topic last year, said: “The general rules are that employers should inform applicants if they are going to look at social media profiles and give them the opportunity to comment. The searches should also be proportionate to the job being applied for.”

An EU data protection working party has issued non-binding recommendations about the practice. It says that employers should require “legal grounds” before prying and suggests that any data collected must be relevant to the performance of the job.

So, where does that leave junior lawyers and NQs who may become candidates in the near future? How careful should they be?

I would suggest, very. They should work on the basis that anything they post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter may be seen by a potential employer.

This is for two reasons. First, regardless of the rights and wrongs of employers checking candidate’s social media, in practice this is almost impossible to police. In our experience, employers do plenty of things that they are technically not supposed to do, such as approach somebody they know at a firm where a candidate used to work for an informal reference in the form of a nod or a wink.

Second, there is nothing to stop someone else (friend or foe) reposting something about you online and it subsequently going viral. It might come to an employer’s attention regardless of whether they have checked your posts. There’s a famous example of a publicist at media company IAC (owner of Tinder and the Daily Beast) tweeting the following before boarding a flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet went viral during her flight and by the time she landed she was at the centre of a worldwide Twitter storm. She was sacked shortly afterwards.

With LinkedIn, the position is even clearer. As LinkedIn is a work-related networking site your presence there is fair game. As we said in our recent post LinkedIn for Newly Qualified Solicitors: your FAQs answered, “it is important that you sound professional”.

We would also suggest that your concern should go beyond what you post online; it should extend to your behaviour. Smartphones mean you are only a photo or video clip away from notoriety if your behaviour falls below acceptable standards. In March, two students at Nottingham Trent University were arrested after another student tweeted a video of "vile" racist abuse taking place at the university.

For what it is worth, employers need to be as cautious as the candidates they are seeking to recruit. In August, Lucinda Nicholls tweeted details of an unpaid internship she was offering at her firm Nicholls & Nicholls. Cue a deluge of abuse from a number of lawyers and academics, and a series of online spats on the basis that she was seeking free labour. She disagreed, but whatever the rights and wrongs of her argument she has placed herself firmly in the public eye, for good or ill.