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Social Media Considerations for Employee Background Checks

Social media is everywhere. From Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and Instagram, these sites are buzzing with activity every single minute of the day. They often give the truest picture of what people are doing, what they believe and how they act. And since employers want to know these things about job candidates before they choose to hire them, should employers check social media pages as part of the background check process?

According to a 2013 SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management) survey, only 22 percent of employers polled said that they actively researched job candidates on social media websites. This was a 34 percent decline from 2008. You may wonder why when social media has grown by leaps and bounds since that time, would the desire to review it as part of the hiring process decline?  The number one reason employers gave for not checking social media was concern over the legality of using it as part of the hiring process.

Is this a valid concern? You bet it is. Employers who use social media sites can glean all kinds of information about an employee that they are not typically meant to know. And if they stumble across information that they should not use, it can put them in a very tough position. Even if an employer knows that they cannot use the data they find in their decision making, they can’t “unknow” the information either.

Here’s another way to think about it:  We all have watched courtroom proceeding in movies or even real life and heard the judge tell jurors to not consider something that was said in the courtroom. “Strike it from the record.” While it would be nice to “unhear” something, human nature kicks in and like it or not, once those words are out, they will be in someone’s thought process. The same goes for social media searchers by employers.

Here is an example: A hiring manager is reviewing applications to proceed to the interview process and is checking social media on top candidates. That manager will likely see a photo of the candidate and learn their approximate age and race. They may even learn about medical issues or personal problems that person is facing. None of that information can be used legally in the hiring process, however, the hiring manager is human and human nature will kick in and play a role, no matter how minor or major, in their decision to pass the candidate onto the next step.

Another consideration is that the hiring process needs to be fair and consistent across the board. Even in 2016, not every applicant will have a social media page. Some people just don’t want to be part of these pages.  If an employer is reviewing social media for one candidate and another doesn’t have social media, the process loses its consistency.

So, how should employers mitigate the legal issues that may arise due to social media checks? SHRM advises the following guidelines be used when incorporating social media into the background check process:

  1. Limit Exposure. Information on a job candidate’s social media pages should not be passed around the office like a box of donuts. Also, hiring managers should not have access to the social media pages. According to Jonathon Segal, a partner at Duane Morris LLP, only human resource personnel should review information from social media checks. This goes back to the courtroom analogy. A hiring manager may unwittingly use bias based on the information found in their decision. A human resource professional will be (or at least should be) trained on what information can be considered before moving the candidate to the next level.
  2. Save it for Last. Social media checks should not be used in initial screening. Segal advises that any social media checking should wait until the final stage of the hiring process. This will limit the exposure to lawsuits because these checks will not be done on dozens of candidates, but typically just the final one. It will also save time and money on unnecessary screening.
  3. Respect Privacy. Only public information should be reviewed. Employers should never ask job candidates for passwords or access to private information on their social media sites. Failure to follow this advice would open the doors to lawsuits.
  4. Communicate Background Check Policy. Employers need to be clear about their background check policy. While there are not concise laws regarding if the review of social media pages needs to be disclosed, it is still better to be safe than sorry. Be sure to get a signed acceptance of the background check policy before proceeding.

While social media is a good indicator of the type of person a job candidate truly is, it is also only part of the picture. Employers and HR personnel should take the information found with a grain of salt and look at all of the hiring criteria before making decisions.

The professionals at SB Checks are available to walk your hiring manager through the background check process. Call (888) 725-2535 today to learn more about all of the options available to ensure you are making the right hire the first time.