Social Media Background Checks: Relevant or Not?

By Michael Klazema on 1/15/2019

Since the advent of Facebook in 2005, the average person has developed a much more substantial online presence than was common before that point. The proliferation of social media has spurred employers to start running “social media background checks” on their prospective candidates. There has been a considerable amount of debate about these checks, both regarding their relevance and their implications for employee and job seeker privacy—but if there’s an argument in favor of social media background checks, then The Cleveland Clinic may have just found it.

Per a report from The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper, The Cleveland Clinic recently fired 27-year-old medical resident Lara Kollab over her social media past. Kollab’s Twitter feed was filled with hundreds of anti-Semitic posts, including a 2012 post in which she vowed to give Jewish patients the wrong meds once she became a doctor. Kollab’s tweets were discovered and reported in September by Canary Mission, a watchdog organization that tracks and flags anti-Semitic statements and behaviors on college campuses.

The incident has prompted The Cleveland Clinic to consider implementing a social media background check policy for its new residents and hires. Currently, the hospital has no requirement that demands a search of candidate Twitter feeds, Facebook feeds, or other social media accounts. A spokesperson for the Clinic said that it has not implemented this kind of policy in the past largely because checking social media accounts—and verifying that they belong to the right people—is not an easy task.

Employers that use social media as a tool to vet candidates do so to learn a bit more about the people they are hiring. The basic idea is that a person’s activities on a platform like Facebook or Twitter can indicate how they might behave in the workplace or whether they are a good cultural fit for the company.

However, there are also dangers associated with social media background checks. Not finding a candidate’s genuine or correct profile is one risk. Another danger is discovering information that has nothing to do with the job at hand and could lead to discrimination in the hiring process; social media feeds often include personal details about a person’s life, opinions, and identity, and some of these details—such as sexual orientation, gender identification, age, race, religion, disability, and political affiliation—cannot legally be used to disqualify a candidate from consideration.

Depending on who the hiring manager is, these details could create biases or reinforce preconceived notions that make it impossible to make a fair hiring decision. This bias—even if it is unconscious—can lead to discrimination in the hiring process and costly associated lawsuits.

The Cleveland Clinic Lara Kollab scenario represents a rare case in which a social media background check has raised a concern comparable to the red flags sometimes found by a criminal background check. Kollab’s biggest critics have noted that past tweets promised violence against Jews and called into question whether she could be trusted to uphold her Hippocratic Oath. Her tweets identified that she was a potential threat to patients in the same way that a history of violent crimes might.

Unlike some states, Ohio does not have a law that prohibits employers from demanding social media usernames or profile links from employees or job candidates. As such, a social media background check at The Cleveland Clinic may be compliant with state laws. Before deciding whether to institute such a policy, The Cleveland Clinic (and all employers) must take a close look at the pros, cons, risks, and potential liabilities of social media screenings.



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