House Committee Wants Social Media Searches for Federal Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 5/16/2016

On Friday, May 13th, legislators in the House Oversight Committee heard from federal agencies about why government background checks don't include social media searches. According to a report from The Hill, the hearing saw testimony from Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. OPM is currently in charge of most of the background checks that federal employees and contractors face during the vetting process.

It's no secret that some private employers throughout the country use social media background checks to screen their applicants. Obviously, not every employer is looking through the Facebook and Twitter accounts of potential hires. Just like every company's policies on criminal history checks varies, and just like not every business runs credit checks or driving record checks, not every company bothers with social profiles. Still, many do, looking for profane statuses, racy photographs, offensive comments, or other less-than-attractive social media behavior as a means of judging an applicant's character.

Many fair chance employment advocates are against social media background checks, and the EEOC has said that checks of this ilk "raise discrimination concerns." Social accounts only rarely provide any information that is explicitly relevant to someone's ability to perform a job adequately, but they almost always disclose potentially discriminatory personal information. Social media is where many people reveal their political beliefs, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity for all to see. Some of that information could bias employers toward applicants in a way that is against the law.

All of these factors would be true for federal employers as well. However, presumably since national security is part of the conversation, Congress has been pushing the OPM to check social media accounts of new employees or contractors. The May 13th hearing in front of the House Oversight Committee just sent the message once again that Congress wants social media to become a standard part of government background checks.

Lawmakers are particularly concerned about federal employees who receive security clearance to access confidential information. By mining the internet for social media accounts and other mentions of applicants online, the OPM would be able to find out more about security clearance candidates. With more information on the table, there would be a mathematically greater chance of the OPM finding red flags and denying security clearances to people who shouldn't have them. The OPM even has a new tool that will help them crawl the internet and research applicants.

The big question here is about privacy. Privacy has been at the center of many debates over social media background checks in the workplace. In some situations, employers have forced their applicants to bypass their own Facebook privacy settings and make their accounts accessible to hiring managers. From the sound of it, what Congress wants the OPM to do is not so extreme. The OPM internet crawler would only be able to find information that is already publicly accessible on the web. Still, the "discrimination concerns" that the EEOC raised are still there, and they are definitely enough to give any employer pause before trying out a social media background check—federal government or otherwise.



Tag Cloud
Recent Posts

Latest News

  • March 20 Employers who use E-Verify must follow the proper steps and procedures when they receive a “tentative non-confirmation notice” from either the Social Security Administration or Department of Homeland Security. Failure to follow the proper procedures can cost employers both time and money. 
  • March 20

    Four Department of Commerce employees are out after their background checks resulted in security clearance denials. All four had worked high-ranking positions for months despite incomplete background checks.

  • March 15 As more states legalize the recreational use of cannabis, they contend with the emergence of new industries surrounding marijuana cultivation and production. 
  • March 14 In most cases, it is easy to determine where an issue might show up on a pre-employment background check. Citations for traffic violations or reckless driving charges will appear on a motor vehicle record check. Verdicts in a civil court case will show on a civil court background check. And criminal convictions—from petty theft to violent felonies—show up on criminal background checks.
  • March 13 How many years back do employment background checks go? This question can have multiple different answers depending on the situation.
  • March 13 A new bill in Florida would require landlords of apartment complexes to present tenants with verifications of employee background checks to give them peace of mind the people working in and around their homes are trustworthy.
  • March 08 Police officers working with the University of Texas at Arlington recently arrested a man who had avoided police capture on a warrant out of Oregon for nearly two decades. The man, whose real name is Daniel Charles Ray Hanson, spent those 17 years using a variety of fake names and identification documents to move around the country, often engaging with educational institutions under false pretenses. Police say Hanson regularly went by at least three different aliases. He sports a rap sheet that stretches back to an arson conviction in 1995. 
  • March 07

    The Future of EEOC Guidance in Texas Is Up in the Air

    The EEOC issued guidance in 2012 warning employers about the dangers of enforcing categorical policies to bar candidates with criminal histories. That guidance is not enforceable in Texas thanks to a recent court ruling.

  • March 05 Vermont is the latest state to restrict employers’ access to and use of social media accounts of employees and applicants. 
  • March 01 In an age of "industry disruptors" turning established business models on their heads, companies such as Uber and Lyft rely on a unique workforce of individuals outside the traditional employer-employee context. Uber calls them "partners" while other businesses refer to them as "independent contractors," the official classification these individuals use for tax purposes. Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) revealed they had warned a business, Postmates, for misclassifying their staff as independent contractors. In the NLRB's determination, these individuals were employees.