Social Media Background Screening: Should It Be a Part of Your Hiring Process?
Social media is a well-established means of sourcing candidates in the recruitment process. According to a study by CareerArc, 91 percent of employers already use social media to hire talent. A related practice, using social media in the background screening process, is a different matter altogether. It relies on searching and reviewing candidate social media profiles and posts to determine their fit for hire.
Organizations that use or are considering social media screening hope to get a more holistic view of an individual, including information supporting or detracting from their candidacy for a position. Social media screening can include a search for posts on professional or personal topics, posts from others about the candidate, or any social media activity aligning or conflicting with the values of the hiring organization.
Social media background screening can include checking personal or professional candidate profiles on sites such as Facebook or Instagram, but it can also include checking a candidate’s posts and recommendations on LinkedIn. Each organization can, therefore, have a different approach to using social media in background screening, with varying results:
Aside from viewing a candidate’s LinkedIn profile, it may make sense not to pursue social media background screening at all. Why? Because on the surface, social media appears to be an effective way of gaining deeper information about a candidate’s activities and associations, but it has some drawbacks. All things considered, social media background screening may be less effective than you might think.
Limitations and Risks of Social Media Background Screening
While reviewing candidates’ social media activities may provide more information about them, it’s very possible it will be completely unrelated to the work they’d be doing in your organization. Whether an individual is a passionate fan of a sports team, a collector of dolls, or a follower of a certain political party, those aspects don’t necessarily say much at all about the person’s qualifications or ability to perform a given job. This reality raises the question of whether you can get a positive return on the investment of time in checking social media profiles, particularly when your findings may not be relevant to the recruiting process.
Social media content is ever-changing. Much of the information on social media accounts can be altered or erased by the candidate before it can even be verified by background screeners. Virtually all social media accounts allow users to update or remove posts and other information. Some, such as Snapchat, have a feature that automatically removes posts after a certain period of time. When a candidate’s social media footprint is ever-changing, it can be virtually impossible to get a clear picture of activity and posts.
According to one report, most internet users have an average of seven social media accounts at any one time. Some of those accounts may be public, while others will be locked or private, making it difficult to conduct a consistent review of social media among job candidates. You can’t screen what you can’t see, so it’s possible you could conduct background screening for three or more social media accounts for one candidate, but no accounts for another. Given this lack of consistency, social media background screening is a less reliable method than other methods (for example, SSN trace or criminal record searches) which can be consistently checked for every candidate.
Social media profiles and posts can reveal information about a candidate’s ancestry, disability, ethnicity, sexual identity, or other characteristics. If you rely on those candidate characteristics in making a decision, it can open the door to accusations of discriminatory hiring practices. For example, Amazon recently made headlines when it was alleged a manager there was asked to search candidate social media profiles for race and gender details. While some companies intentionally seek such information, others can stumble upon it by accident. Either way, if the information is used to make hiring decisions, the organization is open to the risk of lawsuits.
There’s no reliable way of determining if a social media account was created by your job candidate or an identity thief. Many social media accounts provide only a name, which can make it impossible to determine which account for “David Smith” is the one you’re seeking. Other accounts may use aliases or photos of people other than the one who owns the account. It’s not just sites like Facebook or Instagram where hard-to-verify accounts exist. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn can also include fake or hacked accounts. In 2019 alone, LinkedIn took action on over 20 million fake accounts.
On one hand, social media profiles are in the public domain and can be considered fair game when it comes to background screening. On the other hand, candidates might consider a prospective employer viewing or attempting to gain access to their social media content as a violation of privacy. When your goal is to deliver a positive candidate experience, the last thing you want is to lose candidates because they didn’t appreciate your attempts to access information they consider private.
While there’s no law preventing an employer from viewing a candidate’s social media account or performing a Google search, you must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act rules when conducting social media background screening. Moreover, in some states, there are limits to how far employers can go in using social media in background screening. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 26 states restrict employers from requesting usernames or passwords to search the personal internet accounts of candidates or employees.
Determine if Social Media Background Screening is Right for Your Organization
Given the limitations and risks, it’s important to carefully consider whether social media screening should be a part of your overall background screening program. Reviewing a candidate’s profile on a social networking site such as LinkedIn, including their posts and recommendations, is a natural part of recruiting and carries fewer risks.
However, going further and searching accounts on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and others carries more risk. Those searches can also lead you down a long road of searching without actually delivering actionable candidate information. Given the time investment, potential legal risk, and limits on its effectiveness, social media background screening isn’t as worthwhile as it might seem on the surface.
A decision not to pursue social media background screening doesn’t mean you can’t achieve a thorough understanding of a candidate’s background and make a well-informed hiring decision. In addition to a criminal history search, there are other effective ways to obtain a comprehensive understanding of a candidate’s background, including the following background check solutions:
- License and educational verifications: Confirm candidate credentials and understand employment and education history.
- Reference interviews: Get valuable insights about candidates from former supervisors and colleagues.
- Health and drug screening: Identify illegal drug use and assess candidate fitness for work in accordance with applicable industry regulations.
Having a highly productive background screening program doesn’t mean including every single kind of search, but prioritizing searches that make the most sense for the industry you’re in, types of positions, your budget, and other factors.
Social media background screening sounds like a great idea, but for many reasons, it won’t deliver a fully reliable or well-rounded picture of a candidate. Because there are many other ways to understand more about candidate capabilities and readiness for hire, it’s a good idea to think about the alternatives before pursuing social media background screening.