The growing practice of peeking at job candidates' social media activity has raised the bar for background checks, but also elevated concerns over privacy and legality.
While many human resources industry leaders and legal experts say websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter play an important role in today's hiring process, employers and recruiters must be careful about how they conduct social media background checks and what information they decide to use to influence their decisions.
Seven out of 10 U.S. hiring managers reject candidates based on information they've posted online, according to a recent survey sponsored by Microsoft Corp. Yet the study also revealed that 90 percent of hiring managers are somewhat concerned to very concerned that the information they find can be inaccurate and unreliable.
Despite such concerns, social media background research is a kind of "due diligence" for employers today, says Rob McGovern, CEO of employment site Jobfox and creator of job board CareerBuilder.com.
"A background check is seeing if a job candidate is a criminal or pot smoker. Diligence is different—it's what can I figure out about this person that will help me when I interview him?" McGovern said.
Part of that due diligence is finding inappropriate photos of job candidates on the Internet, he said. While it may be controversial, McGovern said many employers do care about the photos.
"Companies want to look at a person and see if they look like they will fit in to their organization," he said. "For example, I was contacted by a candidate that had a cartoon character as his picture and I thought, 'This guy is a goofball.' I don't want a goofball."
Social media background checks are not just about uncovering negative information. One thing McGovern advises companies to do is to look at a job candidate's online social "breadth." In other words, are they connected to the key people in their field?
"For example if you are hiring an email expert, is he friends with the other email experts or vendors?" he said. "It shows he is already connected to the community and that he's talking to the right people. That is important because I want employees who are connected to the smart people."
Max Drucker, co-founder, president and CEO of Social Intelligence Corp., agrees. Drucker, whose firm offers social media pre-employment background screening and monitoring, says scouring LinkedIn, Facebook and the like can reveal whether a person participates in industry blogs, message boards, and gets involved in charitable or volunteer organizations.
"If they go on LinkedIn and have a lot of recommendations or accolades, they're showing they are working hard to get that job and they're proactive," Drucker says.
But Drucker and others warn that social media background checks carry risks. These include making the company seem like "Big Brother" and learning about the sex or age of a candidate, which can expose an employer to allegations that a job rejection was discriminatory. To help avoid this pitfall, companies can turn to third-party providers such as Social Intelligence.
Drucker said the goal of his company is to conduct pre-employment screenings that help companies meet their obligation to conduct fair and consistent hiring practices while protecting the privacy of job candidates. The reports that Social Intelligence creates from social media checks remove references to a job candidate's religion, race, marital status, disability and other information protected under federal employment laws. Also, job candidates must first consent to the background check, and they are notified of any adverse information found.
"When an employer does that social media screen themselves, they run risk of discriminating and violating that job applicant's privacy," Drucker said. "We provide a legally compliant way of using social media."
While some companies—large and small—use social media searches in employment screening, others consider the practice too risky. One of them is Chicago-based NES Rentals, which rents aerial lift platforms to the construction industry. The company, which has about 1,000 employees in 73 locations throughout the Midwest, South and East Coast, has steered away from checking social media sites when conducting background checks of potential employees.
"I think one of the riskiest things about using social media for employment background checks is that social media sites potentially expose a lot of information that is protected under EEO [equal employment opportunity] laws, particularly Title VII and the age discrimination law," said Marcee Williams, training specialist for NES and manager of the company's social media recruiting sites. "Even if the information you find on a social media site like Facebook is something you wouldn't consider when evaluating an applicant, the liability exists because the information is there. You can try to convince somebody that information gained from a Facebook profile wasn't used when making a hiring decision, but a hiring manager is better off not even being exposed to it. You don't even want to know some of that personal information as an employer."
Williams says that the most important hiring decision is whether the applicant can get the job done. "If they can get to work on time and do the job they're hired to do, I'm not sure we want to know what they're doing during their free time unless it impacts their ability to perform on the job," she said.
However, Williams does give kudos to LinkedIn, which she says, can be a viable option for employers who are looking for candidate references. "LinkedIn is less social and more of a professional network. There is limited dialogue, no posting of photos other than a profile picture, and no sharing of the type of personal information that Facebook encourages. LinkedIn also encourages people to post professional referrals of colleagues and solicit professional referrals of their own."
The legal liabilities associated with providing references have pushed most companies out of the reference business other than verifying, title, salary and tenure at the company, Williams added.
"LinkedIn allows for the opportunity for endorsements or referrals," she said. "The value of these endorsements is debatable, but it's a better choice for us than reviewing a candidate's Facebook profile."
NES also uses LinkedIn to reach out to potential candidates through the company's career page. NES recruiters sometimes review potential job candidates' LinkedIn page to get a better feel for their experience.
"If there is an endorsement I will read it, but it isn't necessarily used as part of the background check process," Williams said.
Instead of using social media sites for background checks during the recruiting process, NES has focused its efforts on teaching hiring managers how to make more successful hires with the use of behavioral interviewing techniques. Such techniques involve asking candidates to describe how they handled various situations in the past.
"The theory is that a candidate's explanation of a specific past experience will be a predictor of how they will perform in a similar situation in the future," Williams said. "The behavioral interview technique changes a traditional interview question from 'What would you do in XYZ situation?' to something like 'Tell me about a time when …' or 'Give me an example of when ….' This technique requires candidates to recall specific situations from their own personal experience. It gives the interviewer the opportunity to follow up with additional probing questions such as why something occurred, how the candidate felt when it happened, how the situation was resolved and what happened afterwards. We believe that how a candidate performed in the past in a given situation is a predictor of his/her future performance.
"Techniques like this give us better insight to the person's ability to do the job vs. the type of information we might glean from a social media check," she added. "That's really what we're looking for."
Gerry Crispin, co-founder of CareerXroads, a Kendall Park, New Jersey-based staffing, recruitment and consulting firm, says using social media sites for background checks is generally a waste of time.
To Crispin, if the information found on social networks is not important to performance, it should not be part of the selection process.
"I want a simple, practical way for a background check to be done," Crispin says, "and that includes whether performance-relevant criteria exists in an individual's background."
Andrea Siedsma is an Encinitas, California-based freelance writer. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.