In today’s competitive market of background screening, companies are always looking for a competitive edge. Some have turned to performing social media searches. However, there are a multitude of problems with social media searches. Some vendors have addressed at least some of these, but not to the degree where we (as a consumer reporting agency) feel comfortable providing them. Below is an overview of the problem.
Social media searches can result in incorrectly associating information with an individual. Individuals commonly disclose untrue names and dates of birth on social media sites. Additionally, many social media sites do not even make that information available for searching.
Social media searches can incorrectly miss information about an individual, for the same reasons as a false positive.
Some states have made social media searches illegal. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Utah, and (pending the governor’s signature) Washington all prohibit employers from requiring applicants and employees to provide their social media user names. GIS anticipates similar legislation to pass in other states. This prohibits the easiest way of correctly identifying social media content as belonging to an applicant or employee.
Often, online terms and conditions of social media sites prohibit anyone from logging in using anyone else’s user name and password. These terms and conditions may have other provisions designed to protect the privacy of the user. Violating these terms and conditions can be one or more of a breach of contract, a copyright violation, wire fraud, etc.
The types of information that some people put in their social media can lead to a negative impression that affects an employment decision for reasons that have nothing to do with effectiveness on the job. Some of these impressions can be related to race (for example, quoting a violent music lyric from a popular song.) Some can be related to sex (for example, posting compromising photos). Some can be related to disability (for example, posting information about feeling depressed). While some social media search firms claim to filter the search to protect the employer from discrimination charges, doing so means that ambiguous information must be filtered out, reducing the actual value of the search.
Suppose that your social media search shows that your applicant was complaining about his/her prior employer to other employees. If that information is in the hands of your decision maker, you now have a problem, because that act of complaining to other employees is legally protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. The National Labor Relations Board has been very active in pursuing cases to protect that kind of activity.
Often, social media users attempt to control their social image through social media. This may include misinformation – sometimes including outright fabrications – about their own conduct. For example, suppose that you find a social media post that refers to marijuana use. The impression this gives is that the individual is a user of marijuana. This is not necessarily true; the individual may actually be abstemious, but is trying to appear “cool” to friends.
What will a social media search really tell you? For most positions, the information found through a social media search will not be relevant. If you are hiring for an entry level position, does it matter that the applicant does socially while not at work? If your concern is drug use, you would be better off with an actual drug test. If your concern is the image that your personnel project, that concern is probably valid only for top executives and for national account executives who work in person with your clients.
Lastly, social media searches have a cost. You could use that part of your budget to include other, more reliable information in your background check.