You are within your rights to check a job applicant’s social networking profile and you will find a whole host of information on there - at no cost - which would without doubt help you build a more developed image of an individual than it is possible to build just from reading a CV, or from behaviour at an interview. You will probably be able to determine how outgoing someone is from their profile, or what likes and dislikes they have, and this will, inadvertently or otherwise, inform a view that you have of them that you may not have had, had you not looked.
This can have both positive and negative effects. Information on their profile may confirm positive opinions that you had of someone, and convince you that they are the right kind person to fit in at your organisation and be able to carry out the job effectively. Alternatively, what you see may shock you and turn you against employing this person. If this is the case, then you may be doing your organisation a disservice. This person may actually be the best candidate for the job. You will rarely be able to tell how hardworking someone is from their profile or how reliable they can be in a pressure situation – both ideal attributes in an employee.
It would also be risky from an equality point of view to use Facebook or MySpace, etc., as part of your recruitment process. If an applicant could prove – though this would be very tricky – that your refusal to offer them a job was based on a discriminatory viewpoint formed from looking at their profile, then you could land in tribunal.
Checking the profile of someone who already works for you is also risky – you may find they have been making derogatory comments about you and your organisation to their friends or fellow colleagues! Taking action against an employee in relation to such incidents could be tricky and would depend on you having a policy about their use of these kinds of websites.
An employee may find it difficult to argue that you, as their employer, are breaching their privacy by ‘snooping’ on them in their private life because the point of these sites is to put yourself out there to be found by other people. Access to these sites can be restricted and if the individual has put no restrictions in place then they should be aware that their information is there to be seen by all who wish to see it.