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.



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