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What is a Social Media Background Check?

By Michael Klazema on 1/8/2019

Description: What are social media background checks, and are they ethical? We look at how employers use (and shouldn’t use) social media to vet job candidates.

In recent years, more employers have started conducting "social media background checks.” Where most background check processes focus on criminal history, educational credentials, or past work history, social media background checks focus on what a candidate does online. Typically, employers undertaking social media background checks will search Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other online profiles to try to get a better sense of who a job candidate is.

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 that exists to connect 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.

Employers have their reasons for wanting to see a candidate’s Facebook or Twitter. How someone posts on social media is often reflective of some aspects of their true character and demeanor. Candidates who badmouth their bosses on Facebook, post racy photos, talk about drug use or excessive alcohol use, compose offensive tweets, or behave questionably online can sometimes run into issues with prospective employers conducting social media background checks. If someone is profane, offensive, or rude online, learning this information can be an effective means for employers to re-consider what could be a toxic hire.

Beyond the potential benefits, there are big problems with this type of vetting. This article from our Learning Center explains why employers should avoid using social media during the background check process. The reasons range from problems with false positives or false negatives (it’s not always easy to find the right person on social media) to illegality (some states bar employers from requiring applicants to share their social media usernames).

One of the biggest reasons to skip the social media background check is the risk of discrimination. Facebook profiles often reveal details about a person that hiring managers aren’t supposed to know, such as race, gender identification, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Looking at a person’s social media profiles can compromise a hiring manager’s ability to make an unbiased hiring decision, opening the door for discrimination lawsuits.

Just because social media has become a background check tool in recent years does not mean that employers should use it in the vetting process. Recruiting and networking on LinkedIn is one thing; snooping around on a person’s personal Facebook page is another. 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, not employers. Employers should respect these boundaries and refrain from using social media background checks in their hiring processes.


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