Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022 introduced the need for schools to consider whether they should conduct online searches as part of their recruitment process. As a result of this addition and in the academic year 22/23, we have been aware that schools have received differing information and advice from various sources including the DfE, local authorities, unions and independent advisers, in respect of what an online search should actually involve. Concerns have been highlighted, particularly from unions, that the lack of detail and clarity as to how the searches should be undertaken, may unfairly penalise candidates. And of course, there remains a concern that online searches have the potential to result in discriminatory practice, even if inadvertently and this is something schools must be alert to.
It remains the case in KCSIE 2023 that it is for schools to consider carrying out an online search as part of their due diligence on the shortlisted candidates. The purpose of such checks is to help to identify any incidents or issues that have happened, and are publicly available online, which the school or college might want to explore with the applicant at interview. KCSIE 2023 clarifies that schools and colleges should inform shortlisted candidates that online searches may be done as part of due diligence checks.
Within this blog we provide some practical advice in relation to conducting online searches to ensure a consistent, fair and reasonable approach.
Consider whether you will carry out online searches
Firstly, you need to consider whether you intend to carry out online searches for short-listed candidates and you should have justification for the decision you arrive at. Over the course of the last 12 months, One Education HR have been aware of and supported with cases whereby online checks have proved to be helpful in providing information that otherwise would not have been available through other pre-employment checks.
If you do decide that online checks are appropriate, we suggest considering the following approach to ensure the search adds value and is carried out safely, fairly and consistently:
Define the scope of the search and ensure relevant staff are fully briefed in the purpose of the search and its parameters
Decide in advance where you will look, how you will look and what you are looking for and ensure there is clear written guidance for those who will carry out the search. Ensure consistency for ALL applicants and do not deviate from the guidance. This written guidance could form part of your recruitment policy or can be a stand-alone guidance document. Consider including the following within the guidance:
- the websites, social network sites and/or search engines you will use and look at
- the exact search terms you will use i.e. “candidate full name” on social media sites and perhaps “full name and home city” in google, “full name conviction” in google “full name crown court” in google “full name and name of employer” in google
You should also think about including specific details and the practical steps that will be taken, for example:
- on social media, you will only look at public profiles and will not befriend people or try to access restricted profiles,
- on social media you will only look back XX months/years,
- if it is a common or a popular name, outline a limit as to how many profiles you will look at to find the right candidate etc.
- you will only conduct limited searches of each site
Whist different applicants will have differing information available and different restrictions – by having clear guidance on this you are treating everyone the same from the outset and can clearly demonstrate this.
Make applicants aware from the outset that if shortlisted, they will be subject to online checks
Consider including a statement within the job advert, on the application form and/or within the invitation to interview letter, which clearly informs applicants that online searches will be conducted for shortlisted candidates. If a search of social media sites will be included within your check, consider making this clear from the outset too.
Conduct the online search AFTER shortlisting, only for those candidates that have been shortlisted.
Ensure a staff member who is not on the interview panel carries out the search
The person conducting the searches should ideally not be on the interview panel; consider having a designated member of staff or more than one, to fulfil this function, as this will ensure consistency both in terms of the search and in terms of the information they consider to be ‘relevant’. This person should be clear on what they are searching for (from the guidance note) and clear on what they will bring to the attention of the panel/interviewers – they should not share, either verbally or in writing, any irrelevant information. Having this in place will support the school and the panel in avoiding unconscious bias and discrimination.
What to look for?
Be clear about what you are looking for and use the online search to confirm a candidate’s eligibility, and identify any potential safeguarding concerns or risks to your school’s reputation. For example, it might reveal:
- A work history that doesn’t match the CV and references provided (for example on LinkedIn)
- An education history that doesn’t match the stated qualifications
- Attitudes or behaviour that suggest the candidate is unsuitable for the role or risks damaging your school’s reputation
(Clearly, the first two categories above are objective but the latter is subjective and necessitates a thorough understanding of the implications of KCSIE in educational settings)
Raise any concerns during the interview
The interview is the employers’ opportunity to ask questions, gather information and explore any potential areas of concerns with a candidate, face-to-face and in person. This is why it is vital to obtain references, self-disclosure information and to conduct online searches before the interview. You should always give the candidate the chance to comment on issues or incidents that arise from any of these checks, including an online search.
Make a record of the search
Keep a written record of the search to include the following:
- Who carried out the search
- Which search terms were used and which sites were looked at
- The date and time of the search
- Details of any concerns raised and the response provided by the applicant
The written record should not include any irrelevant personal information that was observed during the search.
The key takeaways from this blog: be transparent from the outset, be consistent in your approach, have clear guidance and records you can rely on and allow the person the opportunity to respond or explain any inaccuracies. Remember – information online is not always up to date and/or reflective of the facts. It could be misleading, which is why it is essential to raise potential concerns and discuss them before making your recruitment decision.