Avoiding the Perils of Social Media Employment “Checks”

social-media-employment-checksA few months ago, Facebook announced that it had 128 million daily unique users in the United States. That’s over 1/3 of the population who viewed, updated, and shared personal bits of information with a network of “friends”, each of whom has his or her own network.

Inevitably, a lot of the people on Facebook—and other social media sites—post notes about their work or workplace, hobbies, beliefs, political activities, and friends and family, complete with photo documentation. Information posted on social media sites is generally honest and unguarded, making it an enticing source for employers who are looking for the true picture of an applicant or employee. It’s almost impossible to resist taking a peek.

But please resist it. There are many pitfalls for the employer who uses social media directly to vet employees. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Background Check Laws Apply to Social Media

Social media can be used in background checks, but it has to be treated just like any other source. Here’s what the Federal Trade Commission says about it:

Employment background checks can include information from a variety of sources: credit reports, employment and salary history, criminal records — and these days, even social media. But regardless of the type of information in a report you use when making hiring decisions, the rules are the same. Companies providing reports to employers and employers using reports must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Online Information Must Be Verified

It’s no secret that you cannot believe everything you read in a website. When a person’s job is at stake, it’s especially important to make sure any information you use to make a decision is accurate as a matter of fairness and also as a matter of legal risk.

Protected Classes Have Rights

Once you open a social media profile, the information it contains is in your hands and you cannot put it back (see our previous post on social media background checks). If you learn something about a person as part of a protected class, you may not be able to take adverse action against that person without triggering a discrimination charge.

Information Used Must Be Job Related

This is intrinsic to the point about protected classes, but more general. People may have habits or history or beliefs you don’t like, but if they don’t affect job qualifications, they are irrelevant.

Privacy Matters

The final legal status of privacy is unsettled in the US, but the Snowden affair puts the issue top of mind for everyone who uses online information. At the very least, looking into personal accounts can create suspicion in a workplace. At the worst, it may violate laws like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Use Social Media the Right Way

The surest way to use social media for background checks safely and effectively is to hire a professional background screening company to do it. A professional firm will make sure the information is treated with the same due diligence applied to every other source, and guide employers to take the right steps in compliance with FCRA.

Beyond this, organizations should set up policies for the use of social media that take legal requirements into account and treat every applicant fairly.

  • Define the kind of information you are seeking in social media profiles, and state how it is relevant to the job in question.
  • Learn and apply relevant legal requirements, including FCRA, EEOC and state or local regulations.
  • Determine which social media sites are relevant, e.g., LinkedIn, and develop a method to verify the information you gather from that source.
  • Use the same research methodology for every applicant or employee in a consistent manner.
  • Comply with requirements to inform the applicant that you are using social media information, how you are using it, and whether they have a chance to rebut it.
  • Use the adverse action-2 step if you choose to reject an applicant based on information you find in a social media account.

Ask us about using social media in a comprehensive background screening program.


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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