- A social media background check is when employers review a job candidate's social media profiles during the hiring process.
- Social media background checks can reveal information that is often tougher to find through traditional screening processes.
- You should only conduct social media background checks toward the end of the hiring process, and you should keep several best practices in mind.
- This article is for employers who want to know how social media background checks can and cannot be used during the hiring process.
While you may be tempted to check out a job candidate's social media presence before hiring them, doing so might not be worth the risk. Depending on what you see and how you use that information when deciding which candidate to hire, you could be subject to a lawsuit from someone who didn't get the job. However, there are potential benefits as well. Before you decide whether to conduct social media background checks during the hiring process, consider the pros and cons.
What is a social media background check?
A social media background check is the process of reviewing a job candidate's social media pages to learn about the candidate. It is essentially a background check performed using information available to the public for free through commonly used social media platforms. However, if done with disregard for compliance standards, social media background checks can be illegal.
Aliah Wright, a manager with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites, said many HR professionals are leery of learning things about candidates via social media because of the potential legal risks.
"They have to tread carefully when they are using social profiles for background checks," Wright told Business News Daily.
The legal risks come from the information you learn, which the candidate may later claim was the reason they weren't hired. There are a variety of "protected characteristics" – such as age, race, religion, medical history and nationality – that employers can't consider when deciding whether to hire someone. Employers that do base hiring decisions on that type of information can be sued.
Key takeaway: A social media background check is when employers review job candidates' social media pages to learn more about them.
Why conduct a background check on social media?
Social media background checks can reveal things about a candidate that might be more difficult to find through traditional job interviews and background checks. Jonathan Segal, a partner in the employment, labor, benefits and immigration practice group at Duane Morris LLP, said that while there are risks in checking social media when screening candidates, there are also risks in not doing it.
For example, employers could end up hiring someone who is "dangerous or unproductive," Segal said. In his opinion, it's reasonable to include social media screening in your background check process, but it's important know when and how to do so.
Key takeaway: Social media background checks can turn up information that's typically tougher to uncover through traditional hiring processes.
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What you can find on social media
You can find a number of things on social media that can help you avoid making a bad hire. For example, you may uncover information in these areas:
Finding the right candidate isn't just about matching a skill set; you also need to ensure the new hire is a good fit for your company. A person's social media activity may help you make that determination.
For example, you may find that, 'Oh, this person may not be a good fit culturally because of this behavior, or the behavior that they shared demonstrates that they aren't someone who uses good judgment," Wright said.
However, be careful in your assessments; finding one picture of someone drinking on a Saturday night doesn't mean the person won't be a good employee, Wright said.
"People are taking those things into consideration, because we have all been there," Wright said. "You have a life outside of work, and sometimes you demonstrate that in your social postings."
Personality and passions
Social media can also reveal the positive aspects of a candidate.
For example, "you could see someone who is very involved in community service," Segal said. "You could see an individual writing thoughtful comments."
Social media checks may also tell more about a candidate's skills. In fact, more job candidates are using blog posts on LinkedIn or videos on YouTube, for example, to show off their portfolio of work.
"A lot of recruiters are using social media for skills assessment, and that can be a good thing the background check can yield," Wright said.
Potentially violent or sexist rhetoric
If you see a job candidate sharing or creating posts that promote violent or sexist rhetoric, you can (and perhaps should) factor these posts into your hiring decision. Indeed, just as many people have lost their jobs after attending controversial events, you can legally disqualify job applicants whose social media posts endorse widely frowned-upon beliefs or statements.
Key takeaway: On social media, you can learn about a job candidate's cultural fit, personality, passions, skills and any potentially dangerous beliefs they hold.
How to conduct social media background checks
If you decide to do social media background checks, you might be wondering which social networks you can check. Wright said all the sites are fair game. There used to be a common thought that you should look only at a person's professional social media profiles, like LinkedIn, she said, but in recent years, the line between professional and personal social networking activities has blurred.
"Think of the people you know who use Facebook for professional reasons and personal reasons," Wright said. "It is all sort of blended. Whether it is personal or professional, it doesn't matter, because it is out there for everyone to see, and it is out there for everyone to make judgments about."
Segal offered several tips for employers that include social media checks as part of the background-check process:
Wait until the end.
One way to minimize the risk of a lawsuit is to not conduct social media background checks until you are close to making a final hiring decision. Segal said you should never look at a candidate's social media pages when screening résumés.
"Why take a risk when you don't need to?" Segal said. "If someone doesn't have the five years' experience required or if someone doesn't have the degree you need, why would you even look?"
If you wait until after interviews are conducted, however, job candidates would have a tough time claiming that the reason they weren't hired was that you saw their age or race on their Facebook pages.
"That person has made it to the end, and you know they are older [or] they made it to the end, and you know they are a person with a disability," Segal said.
Don't involve the hiring manager.
You don't want the person who would be directly supervising the job candidate to search social media pages. Instead, Segal said, this should be left up to HR professionals or a background-check service, since they are much better trained in this area and know what to look for.
"I just think supervisors aren't as sensitive to what they can't consider," Segal said.
Make sure you are checking everyone, or no one, when hiring for a specific job. That doesn't mean you need to conduct social media checks for every position you are hiring for, but there should be guidelines for when it is done, Segal said. For example, you might have a policy that says you look at social media when hiring for all manager-level positions.
Segal said you don't want to get into a situation in which you are down to two final candidates and then decide to check out one of their Facebook pages because something about one of them made you feel uncomfortable.
"Maybe the reason you checked is because of unconscious bias, and that's a real problem," Segal said.
The law is clear that you don't have to establish a rule stating everyone is subject to a background check, he said, but you can't do background checks in a discriminatory way, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Look only at public pages.
It is important to look only at social media pages that are visible to anyone. And under no circumstances should you ask for job candidates' social media passwords.
Segal said asking for a password is not only a criminal offense in nearly two dozen states but also deters candidates.
"If your potential employer asks you for your social media password, that's like asking you for a key to your house," he said. "Find a better employer to work for."
Look for outliers.
When you are searching a candidate's social media pages, look only for things that stick out as being really bad or really good.
"You are just looking for outliers," Segal said. "Very negative might be posting the pictures of partying all night, and the very positive might be helping the disabled or veterans."
Give guidelines to your background-screening firm.
Businesses that use an outside firm to conduct background checks should know not only if the firm searches social media pages but also what it looks for.
"If they are doing it, you want to set clear guidance for them," Segal said. "You should tell them the things you want to know and those you don't, such as any medical or personal information."
While federal law states that you must alert job candidates if you are having a background check company conduct screenings on them, it is unclear if you need to tell them that their social media pages, specifically, will be looked at, Segal said.
Nevertheless, he said he would advise employers to be upfront. Tell candidates that, when conducting background checks, the firm will look at, among other things, criminal, credit, employment and educational history, as well as social media that's available in the public forum.
While giving candidates fair warning of a social media background check may cause them to remove any potentially damaging posts, that's not such a bad thing, Segal said.
"If you [list] social media, then anything they have that's problematic, they are going to remove, so it is nothing more than a stupidity test," Segal said. "But if it weeds out someone who doesn't care enough to clear it up, then I think it's served its purpose."
Key takeaway: Conduct social media background checks toward the end of the hiring process, and keep several best practices in mind.
Should you hire a background check service or DIY?
If keeping your background check costs low is your biggest priority, you may want to consider going the DIY route. However, if the potential legal ramifications of social media background checks worry you, you may feel more secure hiring a background check service.
Your background check company should have thorough knowledge of legal compliance, so hiring an outside firm may lessen the chances that your company will face a lawsuit. The company should also have representatives who are readily available to answer any questions you may have about compliance or any other aspect of the background check.
If you are interested in learning more about background check services, visit our background check services buying guide. Or, if you already know what you want, see our picks for the best background check services for a range of business types.
Key takeaway: Although it may be cheaper to do social media screening yourself, hiring a background check service reduces the chances of legal repercussions.
Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.