It's arguably the most common debate in the background check industry these days: should employers be allowed to trawl t...
In today’s competitive job market, employers are always looking for something that can give them an edge. Hiring a new employee can be a stressful, time-consuming, and expensive process, and making the right hiring choice the first time is crucial to avoid a quick trip back to square one. Thorough background screenings are one tool for employers to verify their candidates before hiring. However, where most employment background checks focus on criminal history and employment verifications, some companies have turned to social media background checks to give themselves an extra window into who they’re hiring.
What is a social media background check? Essentially, employers that use social media searches to vet their candidates use applicants’ online profiles to learn more about them. The thought is that, since many people share a lot of themselves online, looking at social media can be a useful tool for employers to gauge the behavior of a potential employee.
The question is, does social media have a place in employment screening? Are social media searches the proper tactic to elevate your organization’s hiring process to the next level? While Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks can certainly tell you much about a candidate, there are also many problems with using social media for background checks. And while some social media background search vendors have addressed at least some of those problems, no one has perfected the process yet.
Below, we will explore the pros and cons of social media screening checks so that employers have all the information before deciding to vet a candidate through online profiles.
Are social media checks really useful for employees? While most background check agencies do not offer social media background checks and would generally advise against them, there are good reasons that employers have gravitated to this tactic to learn more about candidates.
While job applicants are asked to share a great deal of information about themselves during a job screening – from job applications and resumes to the interview process – the fact is that candidates are actively working to present the best version of themselves to their potential future employees. To a certain degree, every job interview is a performance on the candidate’s part. The interviewee will work to put forth their best qualities while perhaps obscuring their less flattering instincts. For instance, attitude problems, anger issues, or disrespectful behaviors won’t always come out during the hiring process.
A social media background check can sometimes uncover a fuller portrait of a person and how they behave in and out of the workplace. Managers look for angry, profane posts, sexist or racist comments, and badmouthing of work colleagues or managers when conducting social media background checks. In theory, someone who engages in these types of online posts could bring similar energy into the workplace, which can affect everything from workplace culture to company image.
Here is a quick rundown of the different social media sites and the types of posts employers may be looking for during a social media search:
However, none of these networks are free of the challenges around social media background checks. Read on to learn more about the pitfalls that can complicate the more attractive or favorable sides of using social media searches for employment purposes.
One of the biggest pitfalls of social media checks is the possibility of a false positive. Finding people on social media if they are already in your social circle isn’t difficult since you will likely have mutual friends or connections. Finding a candidate online is significantly more difficult. In fact, hiring managers can spend a lot of time trying to match their candidate to a social media profile which can sometimes even lead to associating the candidate with a social profile that isn’t theirs.
Consider this: As of January 2022, over 2.9 billion people were on Facebook – more than a third of the world’s population. Many of those users have common names, don’t have photos of themselves on their profiles, or are otherwise difficult to find using the Facebook search function. Other networks can be even more difficult to search. On Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, users often go by handles or usernames that have nothing to do with their actual names.
All these factors make it difficult, in many cases, to verify that a profile truly belongs to the candidate you’re trying to research. You can’t draw conclusions about a candidate from a social networking profile if you cannot verify that the profile belongs to them. As a result, false positives are common with social media background checks. If your candidate’s name is James Smith, you might erroneously associate that candidate with information you found on a profile belonging to a different James Smith.
Unsurprisingly, LinkedIn is the easiest social network to use for social media background checks. That’s because you can search a candidate based on their name and where they work or have worked in the past – information employers will have thanks to job applications and resumes.
False negatives are also possible with social networking checks. Billions of people worldwide aren’t on social media at all, and many use alternate names or aliases or set their accounts to private, so they aren’t searchable.
Running background checks with social networks often gives these hard-to-find individuals an advantage over candidates who are more present or prominent on social media. If you can’t find anything about a candidate on social media, you might assume they have “nothing to hide.” If you draw this conclusion while simultaneously scrutinizing another candidate’s non-private Facebook or Twitter page, you have created an inherently unbalanced background check process simply because of a false negative.
In addition, some candidates have caught on to using social media for background check purposes and have even started scrubbing their online presences or moving everything to private to avoid any trouble. Read our article, “Should You Erase Your Online Presence When Applying to Jobs?”, for some information on this trend.
Beyond the logistical challenges of social networking background checks, another important aspect for employers is legality. “Are social media background checks legal?” is a question every employer should ask before proceeding with one.
As with many legal background check questions, the answer to this will depend on your location. Many states – such as Oregon, Maryland, and Nevada – have placed restrictions on employers’ ability to use social media as part of the pre-employment screening process. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states have enacted laws to this effect for employers. In most cases, these laws state that employers are not allowed to require their applicants or employees to provide social media usernames, profile links, or passwords.
Similar legislation will likely continue to pass in new states in the future. That trend could lead to social media use in background checks becoming less common.
In most cases, though, laws about social media background checks do not outright ban the practice. Instead, they restrict how the practice can be carried out. For a few years, there was a trend of employers requiring candidates to provide links or URLs to their Facebook pages as part of the application process. This practice is what most laws on the subject have banned. However, as you can see, those laws still provide plenty of leeway for employers to search for candidates online.
Social media background checks are unlikely ever to become entirely illegal, if only because a “social media background check” can be defined in many ways. For instance, many employers search their candidates on LinkedIn – a practice that aligns with the purpose LinkedIn was designed to serve and that LinkedIn users sign up for when they join the site. Total bans on social media background checks are unlikely because they would ban this type of harmless online networking.
Critics of laws restricting social media background searches argue that the restrictions exacerbate some of the problems around these checks. When a hiring manager can’t simply require a candidate to share links to their social accounts, it eliminates the most accessible way employers can correctly identify social media content as belonging to an applicant or employee. In turn, the risk of false positives or false negatives becomes that much higher.
Because false positives and negatives are relatively common in social networking background searches, employers often ask whether they can trust what they find on social media about candidates.
The most important piece of the puzzle for establishing trust is verifying that the social media profile or profiles in question do belong to the candidate you’re vetting. If this verification cannot be made for profiles, you should disregard any information gleaned from those sources.
If you can verify the candidate’s social media profiles, dates are also essential to consider when deciding whether to trust the information you find. Some people update their social profiles daily. Others hardly use them and let them sit dormant for years. As a result, you might find outdated information about a candidate on a profile, particularly on LinkedIn.
Finally, some social media users attempt to control their image through social media. That “image” is not always a reflection of reality. There’s a common saying that the life a person presents on social media is far more interesting than the life that person lives.
So, if a candidate has posted an image of themselves (seemingly) smoking marijuana, there is always a chance that the photo may be misleading. Is it possible that the person was indeed using drugs and was photographed doing so? Yes. Is it also possible the person was trying to appear “cool” to friends? Also, yes.
Employers that jump to conclusions based on what a social profile seems to convey may risk making decisions based on incorrect assumptions.
Did you know that the online terms and conditions of most social media sites prohibit anyone from logging in using anyone else’s username and password? Terms and conditions may have other provisions designed to protect users’ privacy. Violations can qualify as a breach of contract, copyright violations, wire fraud, and other crimes.
In other words, even if your state doesn’t prohibit the practice of asking a candidate to disclose their social media usernames and passwords, the social media sites themselves likely have rules against that practice.
One of the biggest liabilities of looking up a job candidate on social media is the potential it creates for bias and discrimination.
Think about the information people might share on their social media accounts. Usually, employers look for signs of bad judgment or character. Posts badmouthing a supervisor or talking about drinking on the job are examples of the kind of red flags employers look for.
However, the fact remains that social media users typically share much more of themselves than just their thoughts about managers or their illicit work behaviors. Posts related to race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, political beliefs, gender identification, or disability are common on social sites. This information can easily compromise a hiring manager’s ability to assess the candidate objectively and fairly.
Employers are not allowed to ask about any of these details on a job application, partly because they have nothing to do with fitness for the job at hand. If a hiring manager learns these details through social media, it can lead to hiring decisions skewed by unfair bias or preconceived notions. Also, if a hiring manager does make an ethically compromised hiring decision, it could lead to accusations of discrimination and associated lawsuits.
While some social media background search firms claim to filter their searches to protect the employer from discrimination charges, it is simply not worth the risk for employers to wade into potentially sensitive information.
Suppose your search shows that your applicant complained about their previous employer to former coworkers. Understandably, employers are bothered by the thought of their employees besmirching the company name on a public social networking site. This activity can hurt an employer’s brand and affect everything from recruitment to public image.
However, disqualifying a candidate for complaining about work on Twitter with their coworkers is also a significant legal pitfall for any employer. That’s because complaining to other employees is a legally protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. The National Labor Relations Board has been very active in pursuing cases to protect this particular employee right, including cases related to social media background screenings.
The message here is important: While your social footprint on the internet may be public, that doesn’t mean it isn’t protected. Employers don’t have the right to disqualify their candidates for just anything that crops up on social media. Hiring managers should take this point under advisement and tread carefully when making decisions based on social media activity.
Are social media checks on the decline? In the early to mid-2010s, these checks seemed to become a significant part of every pre-employment screening process. More recently, talk around these checks has quieted a bit, perhaps suggesting that the trend of social media vetting is on the downward swing. That trend could be because of the legislative evolutions around this subject, but it’s just as likely that employers have come to question how worthwhile social media searches are.
The key guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding background checks of any type is that employers shouldn’t take adverse action against a candidate unless they find information that is expressly relevant to the job at hand. Said another way, not every criminal conviction or driving record infraction has any bearing on a candidate’s ability to perform a job. The EEOC holds that employers should only reject candidates based on background check findings if those findings clearly demonstrate that the candidate may not be fit for the position or prove a risky hire.
To that end, the question many employers ask about social media background checks relates to relevance. Specifically, what will a Facebook profile or an Instagram feed tell you? And will that information have any bearing on the candidate’s ability to perform the job you are trying to fill?
For most positions, the information from a social media search will not be relevant. If you’re hiring for an entry-level position, does it matter what the applicant does socially while not at work? If your concern is drug use, wouldn’t you be better off running an actual drug test? If your concern is the image that your personnel project, that concern is probably valid only for executive leaders. And if you are looking for red flags that might speak to a candidate’s character, conducting reference checks might be more reliable and accurate.
Social media checks often cause employers to nitpick their candidates’ lives unfairly, unethically, and even illegally. Therefore, our advice for clients is typically this: Skip the Facebook profile and focus on background checks that can tell you something worthwhile.
Read our blog post on this topic, “Social Media Background Checks: Relevant or Not?”, to learn more.
Finally, social media background searches have a time cost. You could use that part of your budget to include other more reliable information in your background check. For example, adding an address history check to your screening process can help inform where you order criminal history searches, widening the scope of your background check.
If you have any further questions about social media searches and their role in the employment process, check out our resources about social media checks. Here are a few quick FAQs about social networking background checks, for your convenience and reference.
Typically, employers are just trying to find out things about a candidate that they wouldn’t glean from a resume, interview, or more standard background checks. Examples can include signs of drug use, offensive or problematic posts, and badmouthing of former employers or colleagues.
Verification is important for social media background checks because false positives are common. With so many people on social networks and common names, it can be difficult to conclusively link the person you are vetting to a specific account. You should only use the information you find through a social media background check if you can verify that the social accounts you’ve pinpointed indeed belong to the person you’re researching.
Traditional pre-employment background checks, such as the background check services we provide at backgroundchecks.com, do not look at social media. Instead, they pull information from other sources, such as criminal record databases, DMVs, courts, past employers, and more.
Since the advent of social media in the early 2000s, it has become more common for employers to use social networks as part of their hiring process. Most commonly, employers will look at LinkedIn, a network intended for professional and hiring purposes. However, some employers try researching candidates on Facebook or other social media sites.