Should Social Media Be Part of a Background Check?

Estimated Read Time: 4 Minutes

Social Media as a Background Screening Tool

Social media continues to become more prevalent in the workplace as the line between personal and professional social media continues to blur. According to a recent study, 2 in 5 employers are currently using social media to screen candidates – and it only seems natural. Because of the bulk of information that applicants pour into their social media profiles, it appears to be a logical progression for background checks to include that information.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of organizations don’t use a professional background screening agency to conduct their social media background checks. Why would they? The information is so easy to access. With that access employers gain unique insights into their prospective employees. But, this new territory also comes with plenty of new risks and compliance concerns. While there are some unique benefits to using social media as a screening tool, the risks and pitfalls that can arise highly outweigh them.

The benefits of using social media as a screening tool

Organizations wouldn’t be using social media as a new form of background check if there wasn’t some sort of benefit to it. Unlike a job application or a criminal record search, a social media profile gives a unique insight into the job applicant as a person.

In today’s digital world, online job applications make it easier to generate interest in open positions. When employers have hundreds or even thousands of applicants all applying for one open position, the traditional means of screening applicants through qualifications and background checks may still leave a large number of equally qualified candidates. How do you choose? Perhaps, their social media profiles could offer another level of screening to help narrow down the list of qualified candidates.

social media background check info 1

social media background check info 2

social media background check info 3

Source: article, “How recruiters use social networks to screen applicants” via

The most common things that employers look for when scrolling through a profile are indications of professionalism, culture fit, and content that backs up their claimed job qualifications. Negative content like inappropriate pictures and comments, drug references, bad attitude, or poor communication skills can easily remove candidates from the pool.

The inverse is also true. Positive traits like professional image, creativity, and good communication skills can guarantee an applicant’s place at the interview table.

The downside of using social media as a screening tool

Even with all the unique benefits of using social media for applicant screening, there is a huge elephant in the room – legal compliance. Like I mentioned earlier, social media content gives you access to content that you wouldn’t normally have through traditional screening tools.This can be a benefit when trying to search for that “x factor” in an applicant. However, you are also gaining access to a treasure trove of content that, if used in your screening decision, can land you in hot water.

Compliance issues

Whether you are using a third party or going it alone, There a legal guidelines that must be considered while treading through this type of information. Employers that use a third party to provide social media information for use in hiring decisions must follow the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in the same way that they would when running a criminal record search. If you are unsure what that entails, here is a good place to start.

Compliant Background Screening Practices
The Companion Guide

The topic of Background Checks is a tricky labyrinth to navigate these days. Let us help with the directions.

Regardless of whether or not you are using a third party, anti-discrimination laws like the ADA, ADEA, GINA, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act each play a hand in regulating how you can use the information you find in a social media search.

Consider the EEOC’s guidance on the use of arrest and conviction records in the hiring process. The guidance that they provide for this information is just as relevant for social media content as it is for criminal records.

Other common issues

Information found through social media channels lacks the level of accuracy of traditional background screening methods. Identities are harder to verify and the legitimacy of content often comes into question. The problem is that much of the content on an applicant’s profile is very subjective. Something innocuous may be misinterpreted by someone without the proper context.

Is there a middle ground?

Is there a way to get the good out of social media without the bad? Not likely. The main problem is that protected information like lifestyle choices, pregnancy, disability, etc. can’t be unseen. If you were to decide not to hire someone after seeing that information you would have a hard time refuting a discrimination claim – regardless of whether or not that information impacted the decision.

The best way to avoid that type of situation is to create a filter or a layer of padding between the person who is making the hiring decision and social media content. For instance, if a manager hiring a new employee and wants to use social media to screen applicants, have a separate employee (preferably an HR professional) do the social media search. That person can then relay information that is relevant to the hiring process while keeping the manager away from information that they don’t need to see.