What is a Social Media Background Check?

Should social media posts affect how an employer evaluates a candidate? It’s a tricky question, but one that’s increasingly relevant as companies look to protect their reputations in the digital age. Learn about what a social media background check is and why they’re still legally risky to conduct today.

What is a Social Media Background Check?

Today, well over half of the world’s population engages with social media to some extent. Current estimates put the total number of users somewhere between 4.5 and 5 billion people, or more than 60% of all people. People also engage with multiple communities, with the average user participating in at least six different social media platforms. All that activity, some of which may include public-facing posts, can be a concern for employers today. That concern leads to questions about whether businesses can conduct a social media background check.

Employers may well believe they have reason for concern about what future employees post on social media. Over the years, there has been no shortage of stories where individuals have lost jobs because of racist or violent statements made or shared on social media. Likewise, individuals found by their employers to post sexually explicit content have lost positions or had offers rescinded as well. To prevent a public relations headache, businesses may wonder if and how they can screen a candidate’s social media before hiring, similar to how they might check for a criminal record.

Defining social media screening

Because of rising concerns about reputational damage, more employers have started conducting “social media background checks” in recent years. Most traditional background check processes focus on exploring criminal history or verifying educational credentials and past work history. Social media background checks instead focus on what a candidate does online. The purpose is to look for any activity indicating possible concerns about an individual’s character.

Typically, employers engaging in social media background screening will search popular social media sites for an individual’s profile. Today, that often includes looking for online profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, and more. Employers believe that by doing so, they will get a better sense of who a job applicant really is—more than they could determine during an in-person interview.

In some cases, social media background checks can be an honest means of learning more about job candidates or networking with them. LinkedIn, for instance, is a social media network connecting professionals and prospective employers. Companies often use LinkedIn to recruit candidates or to find out more information about them than they can glean from a one-page resume. In other cases, some employers may not always have a good faith intention at the heart of searching social profiles.

Why would a business want to check an applicant’s social media accounts?

Most people think of their work and personal lives as being wholly separate. Not all businesses agree, especially when someone’s behavior “off the clock” could come back to reflect badly on a company. Law firms, for example, often have strict social media policies about how employees should conduct themselves

online. A company might, therefore, want to know more about how someone conducts themselves to determine if they’re a good fit for the business’s culture.

How someone posts on social media can reflect some aspects of their true character and demeanor—elements they might not share during an interview. Employers might want to look for evidence of a wide variety of potentially troubling behaviors, such as:

  • Making public derogatory statements about their managers or their employer’s business in general.
  • Posting sexually explicit or highly suggestive imagery.
  • Talking about or openly displaying drug use or engaging in excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Posting discriminatory content, such as posts that include racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
  • Violent or threatening behavior.

Employers may think it is imperative to determine if someone has a pattern of profane, offensive, or rude behavior online. Learning this information could provide an effective means for employers to re-consider what could be a toxic hire. However, the reality is more complicated, and businesses must understand what they can and cannot legally do.

Understanding legal concerns about checking social media

Despite the potential benefits, there are big problems with this type of vetting. Our Learning Center article on the subject explains in depth the many reasons why employers should be cautious about checking social media. For example, you may easily encounter false positives or negatives, especially for individuals with common names. You may not be able to know whether a profile actually belongs to the job applicant in question, or if it is genuinely linked to them.

Another big reason to skip social media and rely on a typical criminal record check instead involves the risk of discrimination. Social media profiles often reveal details about a person that hiring managers aren’t supposed to use in decision-making processes. Such factors often include race, gender identification, sexual orientation, and so forth.

Encountering this information can consciously or unconsciously bias a hiring manager. Introducing such a bias removes the ability to make a fair decision. Even if that data doesn’t factor into the equation, the EEOC doesn’t differentiate. If you access the information, authorities must assume you also used the information. Looking at a candidate’s social media profiles without the proper permission or procedures in place opens the door to costly discrimination lawsuits.

There’s another important limitation to consider. While you can always ask a candidate to tell you about previous places they’ve worked so you can conduct employment verification, that may not be true for social media accounts. Some states have made asking candidates to provide their usernames illegal. Even if you obtain account information, you may not learn anything: an individual’s privacy settings might mean that none of their social media content is available to the public.

Many more states have banned employers from demanding a candidate’s social media passwords. As a result, you may not be able to find anything about an applicant’s online presence in the first place. Continuing to try in the face of such legal restrictions creates the risk of fines, lawsuits, and negative PR.

Can companies conduct a formal social media background check?

Despite the problematic landscape, some businesses continue to insist on including social media in an employer background check. They may enlist the help of third parties to assist in notifying candidates in accordance with the FCRA. Such an agency might compile objectionable posts into a report for employers to

review so that all they see are the potential problems—not personal profile information. Even so, many problems and risks in the process remain.

Just because social media has become a background check tool in recent years does not mean employers should use it in the vetting process. Recruiting and networking on LinkedIn is one thing; digging for dirt on a person’s personal Facebook page is another. In fact, job applicants may find such procedures invasive and off-putting, potentially leading to the withdrawal of their candidacy.

Most people use LinkedIn to put up a professional-facing profile. Facebook and other social site profiles are meant to be more intimate and personal—not necessarily private but intended for the eyes of friends and family members. In today’s complex regulatory and social environments, employers should consider respecting the boundary between personal and professional online activity. For now, using a social media background check can be more trouble than it’s worth.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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