Minnesotans are getting more and more accustomed to sharing intimate details of their lives on social media. They share political opinions, party pictures and ultrasound pictures of their unborn children. All this sharing can be a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, but it can also raise some tough questions about employment discrimination.

Many people forget that when they share a photo or comment with friends on Facebook, Twitter or some other social media website, oftentimes their employers or potential employers can see it too. Social media users do not want to be turned down for a job because of an embarrassing party picture online. For their part, potential employers do not necessarily want to see the embarrassing information.

From the employer’s point of view, the problem is liability for employment discrimination. An employer hiring for a new position may want to find out as much about the job applicant as it can in order to figure out if they are going to be a good fit at the company. Likewise, the employer may want to know if its current employees are speaking ill of the company online, or otherwise engaging in behavior that could hurt the company or the employee’s work performance.

However, the employer could be violating workplace discrimination laws if it rejects an applicant or fires an employee because social media reveals the person to be pregnant, disabled, a follower of a religion the employer does not like, or otherwise a member of some protected class.

To get around this difficulty, some employers hire outside contractors to research their employees or potential employees for them. This way, the employer gets the information it wants but does not actually see the party pictures, the religious opinions or the ultrasound scan. If the employer takes action against the employee or fails to hire the applicant, it has a pretty good argument that its decision was not based upon the person’s membership in some protected class.

Workers who have been treated unlawfully in the workplace should investigate their legal options.

Source: Minnesota Public Radio, “Job applicants and social media: Employers take ‘eyes wide shut’ approach,” Annie Baxter, April 8, 2013