Are the hoops that employers have to jump through to screen via social media channels worth it? Yes and no.
By Russ Banham
Three major technological forces are changing the ways in which companies conduct business and run their operations—social media, mobility, and cloud-based hosted systems. Mash them together, as IDC recently did, and you get what the consultancy calls the SoMoClo Edge.

The ability to provide employees access to business apps that can be leveraged on the go is a godsend for organizations looking to drive profitable business growth. Just imagine a salesperson chatting on LinkedIn with a major customer who mentions the company’s plan to increase its order volume by 10 percent. Armed with this vital information, the salesperson alerts production, procurement, and inventory management via the cloud-based system of the need for additional products in the pipeline. Sitting at a dashboard, the CFO now alters plans and budgets accordingly.

In the HR space, social media also is playing a similarly important role. For instance 54 percent of companies are using social networking sites for recruiting purposes, according to the 2013 HireRight Employment Screening Benchmarking Report. Another 7 percent of respondents have such plans in the works. Both numbers are up from previous benchmarking studies.

By contrast, an eye-popping 79 percent of respondents are not using social media sites for background screening, and have
no plans to do so in the next year. Only a paltry 14 percent are leveraging social media in this regard, and a mere 7 percent are planning to follow suit next year. Why such apathetic responses to the bounty of data that resides on a candidate’s Facebook and other sites?

The culprits—by and large—appears to be security and regulatory compliance. Many federal and state laws are on the books with sharp teeth aimed at discriminatory hiring practices that are based on race, creed, color, ancestry, nationality, medical condition, disability, marital status, gender, sexual preference, and age. Ditto the number of rules governing personal privacy.

As Greg Dubecky succinctly sums up the issue, “While the prospect of using social media as a screening tool is tempting to employers, it seems that most have determined it may not be worth all the trouble.”

Too Hot to Handle

Dubecky is the president of Corporate Screening Services, Inc., a Middleburg, Ohio-based background screening provider. Despite the potential benefits of tapping social media to learn about a job candidate’s propensity to perform well, Dubecky says “We rarely receive inquiries from current or potential clients about conducting social media searches.”

His company is not alone in this regard. Steven C. Millwee, president and CEO of SecurTest Inc., an Athens, Ga.-based background screening provider, says employers “rarely consider” social media content in their background screening—for good reason, he adds. “Except in highly sensitive positions, such as a federal security clearance, the background screening provider and employer have several insurmountable hurdles before considering social media content.”

These obstacles run the gamut, raising such probing questions as:

• Can the content be validated as having been actually written by the job candidate?

• How do we know the subject profile on a social media site truly is the candidate under review?

• What relevance does the content versus the candidate have to the position at hand?

The relative newness of social media in the context of background screening has resulted in best practices being written at the present time. Confusion reigns triumphant. For example, many companies are unsure whether or not to permit a comprehensive review of the screening information by the candidate. “Will the candidate be allowed, for instance, to review the material the employer considers relevant to exclude the candidate from employment, in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act?” Millwee says.

If the employer provides full disclosure to the candidate, the report may indicate that the subject belongs to a protected group, which can lead to allegations of discrimination if the candidate is not hired. “Though you may be able to point to other factors—the person hired was more qualified, for instance—you still may have a smoking gun in your hand,” explains Millwee.
Aside from the legal issues, there is another possible reason why social media and screening are seen as incompatible, despite the perceived benefits. “Sites like Facebook and Twitter have made it easier for users to lock down their profiles from public view,” Dubecky says. “Where once there was a deluge of information at your fingertips, there is now just a trickle.”

Yet, many observers assert that the treasure trove of information on a person’s attitudes and behaviors, as reflected in their social media sites, are too compelling to simply leave untouched. “Social networks are a convenient and free way to help verify a candidate’s résumé claims, unearth undesirable behaviors, and gain insight into their skills, personality, and potential cultural fit,” says Todd Owens, president and chief operating officer at TalentWise, a Bothell, Wash.-based onboarding solutions company.

He adds that job seekers must be cautious of their online footprint. And HR professionals must understand how and when to use
this valuable information. As Owens warns, “Organizations
can get themselves into legal hot water if the sites are used inappropriately.”

Establishing Clear Policies

Obviating such legal, regulatory, and reputational risks requires the development of clear policies on social media screening. The first step in this quest? A trip to the legal department to assess the proper use of social media, says Rachel Trindade, vice president of marketing at HireRight, an Irvine, Calif.-based provider of on- demand background checks and drug testing. “The goal is to build an appropriate and compliant social media screening policy that considers screening within the larger context of the employer’s overall screening program, how it works and how it is managed,” she explains.

Her words to employers’ ears! According to the HireRight benchmarking report, only 24 percent of companies have established guidelines or policies for using social networking sites for background screening purposes. Despite the 54 percent of respondents whose organizations use such sites for recruiting, an alarming 74 percent fail to have clear policies in place for this usage.

Nevertheless, several good ideas abound. One is the value in obtaining the prior written consent from a job candidate to directly review his or her social media website content. Another smart practice is to identify which social media sites will and will not be reviewed, the data that will and will not be used, and the individuals who will and will not have access to this information. “You also want to assess how reliable the information is, and whether it can be verified that the actual candidate you’re viewing has in fact posted it,” Trindade says.

This is more difficult than it may appear, says Dubecky. “First,
you have to determine that the profile actually belongs to and is controlled by the candidate—not all that easy in cases involving candidates with common names,” he explains. “Then you have to consider the meaning and import of the profile information. Can you really determine context, tone, sarcasm, and satire? Is someone making a statement that is misogynistic or shows a propensity for violence, or are they simply quoting a song or a movie?”

Once these questions are resolved, the experts say the employer must take into account the relevance of the information to job performance. “This is critical to avoiding discrimination and negligent hiring lawsuits that could cost you dearly,” Owens says.

There are ways to get at the truth and limit legal liability at the same time. Brandon G. Phillips, president and CEO of Global HR Research, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based background screening and onboarding provider, advises employers to run consistent searches with respect to all the candidates for a given position, regardless of whether or not they fall into a protected class. “If the search results are adverse or damaging to the candidate, then consider advising the candidate of the results to give him or her the opportunity to respond and potentially correct the information,” he says.

Dubecky agrees with the merits of this approach, noting that under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, job candidates are provided the ability to dispute information in reports involving them. “Even though a decision may not have been based on information such
as race, age or religion, the very act of conducting a social media search means that an employer likely has this information,” he says. “If taken to task, the employer may be in the unenviable position of proving a negative; namely that the decision was not based on these factors.”

Millwee has a similar perspective, commenting that if the content found on a site indicates a protected group status, the employer may want to redact this content. Nevertheless, he warns to “tread carefully.”

Compounding Complications

There are other nuances to consider. Millwee bought up the scenario of a candidate who has admitted past criminal or violent activities on a social media site. “An employer may be able to make an argument that hiring the candidate poses a risk of negligent hiring claims,” he says. Yet, if the employer isn’t careful, it could invite another legal risk—the so-called “ban the box” fair hiring practices in a growing number of states removing unfair barriers to employment of people with criminal records.

The “box” is the question on hiring forms asking about previous criminal acts. The National Employment Law Project notes that 65 million Americans, or one in four adults, have a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check. Says Owen, “Leveraging information that is irrelevant to the job can have a disparate impact on a protected class and leave the company in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1967.” Certainly, this situation insists upon stringent legal counsel when establishing policies.

Owens cites another “rock and a hard place” situation for employers—the potential adverse impact of not screening candidates’ social media activities. “Even if a company does not perform social media background screening, organizations can
still be liable for social media content posted by a candidate,”
he explains. “If there were clear indications online that a hired candidate was pre-disposed to negative behavior, the organization could be found guilty of negligent hiring in a court of law.

Small wonder why many employers simply pass on screening candidates on social media sites for recruiting purposes. Many, however, are finding alternate approaches that provide just as much information to accurately assess a person’s behaviors and job potential. “For example, if drug use is a concern, there are well established approaches to drug screening that pose no legal risk and provide extremely accurate results,” Owens says.

Those employers that insist on moving forward with social media screening are advised to fully document these activities. “Detailed records will demonstrate that your hiring decisions were based on screening practices that were applied consistently and based on objective and job-relevant information,” Owens says. “Should your hiring decisions be called into question, these records can help you prove that discrimination was not a factor.”
Millwee agrees: “Documentation can be your salvation—or a powerful sword. As the federal government and states continue to review social media screening activities, employers must continue to carefully approach the subject.”

Russ Banham can be reached at

Tags: Screening & Selection, Talent Acquisition

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