Read our State of Employment Law Research Report to get compliance tips from your HR peers.


Avoiding the Dangers of Social Media Background Checks

Avoiding the Dangers of Social Media Background Checks

Screening candidates helps you weed out bad choices but social media sites can reveal information that might expose you to discrimination charges.

Hiring someone without doing a background check is like marrying someone without meeting their family. Considering that some employment relationships last longer than a lot of marriages, it makes sense to scrutinize any new hires as thoroughly as you would a potential life mate.

And it’s not just your own interests that are at stake. It can be devastating to the entire company if the person you hire turns out to be unqualified, incompetent, or worse - a criminal, liar or psychopath. An employee who causes harm to someone else or to the company is bound to bring about a lawsuit.

But in today’s world of multiple information repositories, doing thorough background screening isn’t a simple matter of calling a few references. Important background information can be found in many places, both physical and virtual.

Avoid the Pitfalls

One of the most content-rich sources for background information today is social media. Its expanding presence in our daily lives makes it natural place to search for information on its 800 million users. But it’s important to avoid the pitfalls.

“Social media is free, it’s ubiquitous, it’s easy to use, it’s not going away, and so companies should think about incorporating social media screening into their background screening policy, but they need to be very cautious about the way that they do it,” says Bill Glenn, vice president of marketing and alliances at TalentWise, which specializes in electronic employment background checks.

“They need to first seek advice from their legal counsel,” advises Glenn. He suggests companies consider using a third party to run background checks to make sure that the information is inclusive without being discriminatory, and that the resulting reports are not being used in a discriminatory way. It’s important that information gleaned from social media is used in a consistent and compliant way throughout the entire hiring process, says Glenn.

Danger of Too Much Information

So what happens if, in the course of your search, you come across evidence that a person is a member of a particular religious group?

“Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is about discrimination,” says Glenn. “Based on doing social media searches, you are not allowed to consider sensitive information. And that non-allowable information can be: age, race, gender, pregnancy, religion, sexual orientation, etc,” he says. “When you conduct a social media search, if you’ve exposed yourself to any of those potential classifications, then you run the risk of either discriminatory practice or the potential for adverse action against your company.”

So shielding yourself from the information that is deemed to be sensitive is a critical part of this kind of screening. Clearly the person making the hiring decision can’t be the person who does the screening.

The Good News

“On the flip side, the great thing about social media search is that you can also look for positive information as well,” says Glenn. “A good example of positive information could be that they’re contributing to industry leading blogs or other sites, they’re helping to promote the corporate brand. They may be doing volunteer activity that’s associated with your corporation,” he says. “And you can find all of those great things through social media as well and it can help you get a more well-rounded perspective of the candidate you’re about to hire, which is another reason to use social media, as long as you’re using it in a compliant fashion.”