Should You Use Social Media to Investigate a Job Applicant?

If you use social media websites, like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, and others, to learn more about a potential employee you’re certainly not alone – but is this a wise thing to do? Like other forms of employment background screening that involve the use of publicly-available information, using what you find in a social media search can bring significant rewards … or a world of trouble. The key is balancing the risk with the reward.

Risks of social media for employment screening:

There are many risks associated with the use of social media, or any Internet search for that matter, in the applicant screening process. A few common risks are discussed below:

Discriminatory hiring:
U.S. Federal laws prohibit employers from using race, age, gender, medical condition, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, and disability in deciding between job applicants. Yet, consider how many of those factors can be discovered in a social media search (probably most, if not all). Now try to imagine how you would prove that you did NOT consider any of these factors in your decision against a particular candidate. (Good luck!)

Privacy Rights:
While it can be reasonably argued that anything found in a social media search is public information, it is equally reasonable to assume that some information is clearly not intended for public consumption. A conversation between two friends on Facebook, even if published for all to see, could arguably be a private conversation. As an employer, using information that an individual intended to be private may be in violation of privacy rights. Furthermore, many websites contain privacy policies within their terms of service that limit use for any commercial purpose.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines specifically state that employers should only consider applicant information that would validly predict the individual’s job performance. If you uncover something unfavorable in a social media search, you really shouldn’t consider what you’ve found unless it would clearly affect the individual’s ability to perform on the job. The issue is, of course, how do you prove you didn’t consider information you shouldn’t?

Rewards of social media for employment screening:

After considering the above risks, you might wonder if it’s ever a good idea to use social media to screen potential employees. In fact, smart companies use social media only when the rewards clearly outweigh the risks. Positions of significant trust, such as a corporate executive officer, church leaders, security officers, and similar positions carry significant risk if the wrong person is hired.

Social media and other Internet searches can enable employers to discover critical traits and behaviors that can determine an applicant’s suitability for such positions. So, how do you gain these benefits while minimizing risk?

1. Determine what is important to know about your applicant as it relates to the job and select the most legally-defensible and least-risk measures to obtain the information. For example, is it important to know if the individual is an illicit drug user? Rather than looking for clues in a social media profile, order a drug test. Are you looking for past criminal behavior? Order a criminal background check instead.

2. Use social media research as part of a comprehensive screening program. When using social media investigations, use your findings as one of many components that create a total picture of your applicant. Relying only on what you find in social media may not provide an accurate view of the reality of the individual’s past.

3. Establish policies for your company’s use of social media to investigate potential employees. Create a clearly-defined policy for hiring managers, recruiters, and others involved in the hiring process to ensure social media searches are used carefully, legally, and only as needed by individuals with the proper training and know-how to protect your organization against discriminatory hiring and other risks.

4. Follow FCRA rules and EEOC guidelines. Logic tells us that employers should use social media information in the same way they use publically available criminal records information. That is, employers should follow FCRA regulations regarding notification, permission, pre adverse, and adverse action notifications. Further, employers should follow EEOC guidelines regarding the use of such information in employment decisions.

As the use of social media continues to grow, the use of social media investigations will continue to affect employers. How has your company responded? Do you have a policy in place for using social media searches in evaluating potential employees? Drop a comment here to discuss.

And if you’re looking for advice on your screening program, ask our employment screening experts.

About MichaelGaul

Michael is a results-oriented marketing executive with over two decades of experience in employment screening, physical security, and business process management. Michael has deep experience in human capital risk management and a passion for educating business leaders and HR professionals on strategies that tangibly protect their interests. Michael serves on the Board of the Secure Cash and Transport Association (SCTA) and is a member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS).
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