Social Media Background Checking – Fair On Your Candidates?

Social media background checking is commonplace today, with many employers using it to find and screen job applicants. Social media profiles are the norm—people willingly post and even over-share personal information online.

But is it inevitable that employers are tempted to snoop a little and see what information they can find on prospective candidates?

Information can be gleaned from LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other sites. Some employers even do extensive Google searches or open up a Google Alert on each new candidate!

Is this really necessary or merely a means of snooping? Are employers treading on applicants’ rights to privacy? Are we potentially opening up a raft of potential discrimination claims?

Social references and recommendations can provide additional interesting information, but take them with a pinch of salt! Regard them in the same way that you would personal references.

Many employers are checking out job candidates on social media before they make a decision to recruit or even to short-list for interview or assessment. But what are they looking for? Potentially any of the following and more:

  • To see if the candidate presents themselves in a professional manner
  • To assess if they are a good fit for the company
  • To learn more about the candidate’s previous work experience and qualifications
  • To ensure that there are no ”alarm bells”

So can social media have a positive effect on the recruitment process?

A lot of employers claim that it gives them a good feel for the candidate’s professional and personal image, and that those online references and recommendations are helpful in the process. Social media can help them to select the best fit candidates for their organisations. There is also the argument that it can help to screen out the clearly unacceptable applicants.

Applicants need to be cautious and remember that content posted is open to the public and that prospective employers may well delve into at least some of it. Applicants should ensure that the correct privacy settings are in place, especially on Facebook, where friends and acquaintances can post content to your timeline.

Employers should be careful when accessing social media, and try to ensure that any information that is found and used is relevant to the job. Visiting Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and prying into the background, social activities and lifestyles of candidates may not be ethical, and in some jurisdictions, it’s not legal either.

Legal Implications

The employer could be putting themselves at risk legally. They could gain access to such information as the applicant’s sexual orientation or political or religious views, which would put them at risk of discrimination claims (eg. in the UK, under the Equalities Act 2010), especially if the candidate is rejected for the job.

Employees have a reasonable expectation for privacy in the workplace.

So the message to employers is if you are going to do social media background checks, do them with great caution. Be careful not to turn into a private detective! Be wary of the information posted. How can you be sure that it is accurate?  Always compare on-line references with other information that you have obtained about your candidate. Is it congruent?

Can you make your recruitment processes robust enough that you do not need to access social media as part of the screening process?

Make sure that you are only screening candidates to see if they are a good match for your organisation and culture. Warn the candidates that you may do social media background checks so that they have the opportunity to clean up their profiles.

We live in a diverse society and candidates will have different interests and lifestyles. Be careful not to judge them for their differences. Be prepared to fill vacancies with people who live very different lifestyles than you.

Founder and Managing Director of international management development firm MTD Management Training, Sean McPheat is a leading authority on modern day management and leadership, a bestselling author, and past founder and manager of MTD Sales Training and MTD HR Consulting.


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