Background Checks Using Social Media Sites

Here we are in the 21st century, where everyone carries a phone and participates in the online world. So why not use that information to check a person's background? Many employers have turned to just that resort, with an estimated 70% of employment screenings incorporating a social media scan into their decision-making process for hiring new staff.

Background Checks Using Social Media Sites

In recent years, employers have even taken to monitoring social media accounts of their present employees on an on-going basis. We've all heard recent news stories of various people whose unsavory online behavior has cost them their job. Some employers can make a case for this being a justified measure, such as in industries that are PR-sensitive, or individuals who have a high media exposure. In some cases, employee harassment online can result in liability for the company that keeps the offending individual employed.

Caveats to Employment Social Media Screenings

Employers are on the somewhat unstable ground when performing background checks on candidates using social media. There are laws protecting some degree of privacy and civil liberties. Here is a shortlist of pitfalls in evaluating social media behavior as an employer:

  • Anti-discrimination laws. You are prevented from discriminating against candidates for the race, personal beliefs, age, gender, sexual orientation, and several other metrics. An employee who can make a case that you decided not to hire them after viewing this information can sue you.
  • A non-standard process can be interpreted as discrimination. Given any two individuals, one may be constantly active online while another is barely registered. The person who was most active has more information to scan and more opportunities to have an issue come up.
  • Cases of mistaken identity are prevalent. This can work both ways. A candidate may have worked to hide their more antisocial behavior behind aliases, or someone with beef against the candidate might create false profiles online to smear their name.

To avoid potential pitfalls with anti-discriminatory liability, an employer should go through a third-party service for social media screening. There are plenty of background checking services online which include social media profile searches, such as checkpeople.com. Using a third-party service and declaring it as an employment screening will assist the service in screening out unwanted information to focus on the essential details which you are free to use in your hiring decisions.

Is Social Media Evaluation Effective?

Social media activity doesn't always impact job performance. It is, after all, an arena defined by the word "social." Just like anyone wouldn't want every word they've ever uttered in their home to be broadcasted to the world, people tend to view their online activity as "off the record." Quite a few people, it has been noted, behave differently online than in person. There's also the case where an offensive post can be explained as "just joking." The online world is definitely the audience for the darkest side of anyone's sense of humor.

Social media scans can be time-consuming as well. The amount of time someone spends online can be a huge variable, depending on whether they're an everyday user, or whether they have extensive profiles on niche sites for their hobbies. Some people post their whole life history online, snapping a picture of every meal to post on Instagram. Who wants to wade through all that?

Finally, there is the case of the "blank slate." This is a person with no online activity to be found, whether that's because they don't go online, or because they are hiding their activity behind profiles. Some people have a strong sense of privacy and reject mainstream sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, citing reports of improper handling of their users' data. Others might only be interested in niche communities, or they might be so old-school that their idea of online interaction is through Usenet and IRC—both services that are still active, but definitely not part of what we call "social media."

The only cases where a blank online footprint reasonably could be held against a candidate is if they are interviewing for a position that hinges on online usages, such as a public-facing position, or one that requires a great deal of technology familiarity.

Things to Watch For In Online Activity

  • Criminal behavior. Most online background scans will check for affiliations with illegal activity, such as drug references. This is common sense, but there's also a difference between someone who would shoplift a purse and someone who would film themselves doing it. The absence of criminal activity could just mean someone who's smart enough to keep their mouth shut.
  • Antisocial behavior. This is a big concern for employers in today's marketplace, who can be hit with lawsuits if one employee harasses another and the employer fails to act. So social media activity should definitely flag discriminatory statements, harassment of individuals, any threats made, and general inflammatory behavior.

Final Summation

Use social media results in a background check with a grain or two of salt. And if you are screening as an employer, always give the candidate a chance to answer for themselves and explain their history.

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Thomas Wright
Thomas Wright
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