Social Media Backgrounds Checks: One Area You Can't Overlook

Girl_paper-bag.jpgIs your company considering running social media background checks on prospective employees? If so, you certainly wouldn't be the first to do so, but you'll want to consider the following when using social media to gauge whether or not that next candidate becomes a new hire. 

While social media background screenings are still not as commonplace as criminal history checks, they have become more common over the past few years. Indeed, we've reached a point now where parents, teachers, professors, and advisors are consistently warning young people to be selective about what they choose to post online—lest a future employer find those posts and use them to deny application consideration.

For applicants, the growth of social media background checks has led to more vigilance in avoiding offensive or damning online behavior. In a lot of cases, applicants will even ramp up the security settings on their Facebook accounts, making their profiles impossible to access for employers and other non-friends. For businesses like yours, though, the question is an entirely different one and has to do with the reliability and accuracy of social media background checks.


Social Media Background Checks

Before we delve into the accuracy of social media background checks, let's take a look at why businesses feel motivated to use these investigations in the first place. What can your company gain from looking at an applicant's Facebook page that you can't obtain from running other types of background checks and putting the applicant through an in-depth interview process?

In most cases, employers who look at social media profiles are searching for character issues that don't show up on background checks and that applicants successfully hide in interviews. An applicant might be perfectly polite in the interview, but make sexist or racist jokes on Twitter, for instance. Perhaps the applicant repeatedly badmouths former employees and co-workers on social media. Or maybe that person's photo albums are full of pictures that depict him or her binge drinking or partaking in drugs. 

Bottom line, whether it's bad judgment, disrespect, or just a tendency to say offensive things, an applicant's social media history can hint at the kind of vibe that person would bring to a work environment. Employers who don't like the vibe an applicant is exuding on social media, might decide not to hire that person.


Getting Started

In short, employers turn to social media to learn more about the character of their different applicants. The issue with these types of checks, though, is one of accuracy and relevance.

The first hurdle with accuracy comes in actually locating a person's social media profile. For an applicant with a common name, it can be difficult to find the right Facebook account. What if the applicant goes by a nickname or middle name on Facebook, but listed their full legal name on their job application? Pictures can help you to find the right person if you know what that person looks like, but not everyone has a headshot photograph on Facebook, making matters even more complicated.

Because finding the right person on Facebook can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, some employers have demanded that their applicants provide a URL link to their Facebook profiles as part of the application process. This request simplifies the act of finding the right people on social media, but only slightly. Applicants can say they don't have a Facebook account to avoid providing a link to their profiles. Some job searchers do deactivate their accounts to avoid social media background checks. Others, as mentioned previously, make ample use of the privacy settings. And still others go through their profiles and feeds with a fine-tooth comb prior to an interview, deleting or editing anything that could feasibly be deemed objectionable.


A Matter of ACCURACY

Even if your team of hiring managers or HR personnel manage to find their way to the Facebook profile of an applicant, there's no telling whether the judgments they derive from it will be accurate. Some people take a sarcastic or satirical approach with their social media posting—tones that can easily be misinterpreted if you don't know those people personally. It's also remarkably easy to take Facebook posts or tweets out of context, meaning that assumptions—not facts—can color any social media background check report.

The closest thing you can get to facts about a person on Facebook is likely to be found in their "About Me" section. Here, you might find information about a person's education, work history, interests, major life events, and more. These facts are either redundant (the applicant already provided education and work history on his or her resume) or irrelevant (a person's music tastes or marital status has nothing to do with his or her ability to perform a job).

Worse, the "About Me" section might also include information that hiring managers aren't supposed to know about—like a person's religion, political affiliation, race, or sexual orientation. Employers can't ask about these details on applications or in interviews because they can create bias and lead to discrimination in hiring. Learning about said details on social media is a problem, then, because it can impair a hiring manager's ability to judge applicants fairly and objectively. For these reasons, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) frowns upon the idea of social media background checks. Quite simply, these types of screenings make it more difficult to enforce unbiased hiring decisions.

Even leaving aside the EEOC's issues with social media background checks, there just isn't much there in terms of accuracy and relevance. Sure, every once in a while, you will find an applicant who defames former employees on Facebook, or who uses Twitter to spew sexist vitriol. Usually, though, social media accounts are a bedrock of information that bears no relevance on whether or not a person is hirable. My advice? Skip the social media background checks and focus your efforts on learning about a person's criminal history, verifying their resume information, and brainstorming illuminating interview questions.


Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.  


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