Words to the Wise about Social Media Background Checks for Employment


The treasure trove of personal information that has collected on social media is irresistible. We know that both employers and employees are scanning the publicly accessible areas of Facebook and other sources to find the unvarnished side of their potential co-workers. This information comes with a downside.

Employers beware.

In an earlier piece on social media background checks, we recommended that employers should not perform these DIY checks. Once you have seen someone’s personal information, it’s hard to pretend you haven’t. And remember, all the rules of protected classes apply to online data, and the courts are treating the evolving issues of online privacy gingerly. Unfortunately, from our point of view, the number of employers using social media to investigate applicants seems to be increasing.

A recent survey by Career Builder of 2,138 hiring managers and HR professionals and 3,022 full time employees found that 43% of employers reported using social media, up from 39% last year and 36% in 2012, and many others plan to start. Further, employers are going beyond just social media and are actively searching for candidate information using various search engines on the Web. Employers reported using the information they found both to exclude applicants and in other cases to confirm the decision to hire them. However, it seems there are more applicants rejected based on this information than hired. Over half (51%) of employers who used social media chose to exclude candidates based on that information, while only 33% said they had hired someone because of what they found.

The reasons for the exclusions are many, but the information used is personal by definition and almost never posted on social media with the purpose of being part of a job application (LinkedIn may be an exception here).

Employees beware.

This social media warning extends as much to employers as it does to prospective employees. Career Builder warns job applicants to be careful about what they post. Naive job-seekers published such revealing things as links to an escort service, a photo of an arrest warrant, and participation in a cult. But even if there are no red flags in a profile, employers may interpret references to parties, drinking, and racy stories as reflections of the character of an applicant.

In fact, the reasons employers cite for using social media content in deciding to hire someone are very often because of what they believed the information said about the person’s character. Many workers are reporting that they are actively taking measures to protect their privacy against peepers, and 28% don’t have social media accounts. Even if employers can find the information workers post—or others post about them—they may be thwarting the workers’ expressed intentions to keep matters private.

We continue to believe that employers ought to avoid a DIY approach to social media background screening and instead rely on a professional background screening company to apply standard procedures rigorously and report only information that is safe to use in the hiring process.

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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