Using social media to make hiring decisions comes with a lot of pros, cons, and caveats. We take a deep look at each of them.

It is summer 2013.

A Taco Bell employee has just been photographed licking a stack of hard shell tacos. The alarming photo was posted to Taco Bell's official Facebook page. The story went viral immediately.

Corporate responded swiftly.

They launched an investigation, identified, and terminated the offending employee. Their decision to terminate seems obvious, even though there was a credible and reasonable back story explaining the offending employee's actions.

This response makes sense for current employees, but what about potential candidates?

The case for social media checks and candidate screening

The hiring process comes with an inherent conflict of interest. Your candidate provides you with a cover letter, resume, portfolio, and references.

Each of these ingredients is polished and presented in the best possible light. Does this give you an accurate sense of who your candidates are?

Not at all.

During the early stages of relationships, there is not much in the way of trust. Candidates are looking to maximize the offer they receive from the best possible employer. Employers want to hire the best candidates for their position.

48% of candidates believe their social media is important to employers

These goals are at odds with each other, and the vast majority of employers know it. So do prospective candidates. An MRI Network survey found:

  • Nearly half (48 percent) of candidates believe their social media presence is important to current and future employers.
  • 18 percent of employers conduct a formal social media review of candidate profiles
  • 17 percent of employers are considering it
  • 65 percent of employers conduct informal reviews of a candidate's social media profiles
  • 92 percent of candidates said in recent interviews that potential employers did not ask permission to conduct a formal review

This sentiment is echoed by a CareerBuilder survey that found 70 percent of employers use social media checks to screen candidates during the hiring process.

Another 43 percent of employers use social media to check on current employees. In fact, according to Career Builder, 57 percent of employers have found content that caused them not to hire candidates.

What do employers look for in a potential candidate's social media portfolio?
  • 39 percent search for questionable behavior or content
  • 27 percent look for active engagement in relevant trade or professional organizations
  • 19 percent search for political views that are offensive to the organization
  • 14 percent look for volunteering or charity activities
  • 10 percent focus on active participation in positive social media group(s)
  • 8 percent search for media coverage, mentions or blogging
This means 58 percent of an employer's search is focused on sniffing out poor/mismatched behavior. What kind of inappropriate behavior got candidates in trouble?
  • Provocative or inappropriate media (photos, videos, memes)
  • Information indicating borderline behavior regarding drinking or drugs
  • Discriminatory comments discussing race, origin, religion, age, gender, disability, citizenship, sexual orientation
  • Links to criminal or deviant behavior
  • Candidates lied about qualifications
  • Candidates badmouthed previous employer or colleagues
  • Unprofessional screen name or avatar
  • Sharing confidential information from a previous employer
  • Candidates lied about an absence
  • Candidates posted too frequently

As far as employers are concerned, the above benefits to social media screening are obvious. Another implicit reality is the fact that informal checks minimize the likelihood of a discrimination claim against employers.

Can Employers Use Social Media To Search For Inappropriate Behavior? It Depends.

Does this mean all employers should use social media checks to screen candidates and search for inappropriate behavior to verify candidate values align with their own?

The unsatisfying answer is, it depends.

Les Rosen, founder and CEO of Employment Screening Resources discussed this at SHRM's 2018 Talent Conference & Exposition.

"Screening social media can lead to allegations of discrimination under Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] and numerous state laws if the candidate does not get the job. To avoid a lawsuit, you need objective, consistent and documented procedures to demonstrate information found online is a valid predictor of job performance and [is] used fairly."

If you plan on using social media checks to screen potential candidates, this could be a problem; this is due to TMI - too much information.

When employers view a candidate's social media profile, they will likely come across information (standard non-starters) that should not be used or considered for employment purposes.

Non-starters that can’t be used for employment purposes:

• Race

• Religion

• Disability

• Color

• Gender

• Citizenship

• National origin

• Age

• Sexual orientation

If your organization plans to use social media as an important screening tool, you will need to have objective, consistent and documented procedures to handle the non-starters received above.

You also need explicit systems and procedures in place to ensure information collected by HR is not used inappropriately. You will need documentation that demonstrates this for each candidate.

What are the dos and don'ts employers should adhere to with social media?

  1. Do treat candidates consistently. Treat each of your candidates the same. Avoid devoting extra attention or scrutiny to any one candidate.

  2. Do Not attempt to gain access to a candidate's social media account via manipulative means (e.g., creating a false identity and befriending your candidate).

  3. Do request consent from candidates before beginning your search. Perform social media screening once a job offer is made, with your offer contingent on the check.

  4. Do not neglect standard screening practices. Establish protocols that are based primarily on the job description.

  5. Do document when each candidate meets specific, objective criteria. Show objectively why candidates progressed further in the process or were disqualified.

  6. Do perform social media checks via a third-party provider (e.g., background screening firm). These third-party providers keep your organization safe behind an "ethics wall." They should handle all aspects of candidate background checks and should be FCRA compliant.

Employers can do some social media checks

What if you choose to run social media checks in-house? Here are some additional strategies you can use to minimize your risk and maximize your overall benefit.

  • Be consistent. Again, avoid singling out a specific candidate for a social media check. Do not ignore a social media check for candidates you "like." Treating candidates the same defangs any potential accusation of bias or unfairness.

  • Let HR handle it. HR professionals are uniquely suited to handle sensitive employee information. Allowing supervisors, managers, or directors to run these checks increases the likelihood of noncompliance with state or federal laws.

  • Document your actions. Print, save or capture a screenshot of any content that is used to justify a hiring decision. This protects your organization if a candidate decides to remove the offending content at a later date.

  • Focus on your candidates. Ignore content that was said by others to or about the candidate. Give your candidate a chance to respond to the disconcerting content you have discovered. Also, keep in mind that clone or imposter accounts are common.

  • Never request passwords. A growing number of states stipulate that employers may not ask, require, or coerce employees to disclose their social media passwords. Requesting a candidate or employee's password is likely to create a violation of the Federal Stored Communications Act. It is prudent that employers focus their attention on content that is public instead.

  • Run checks later in the process. It is far more efficient to run background and social media checks on a candidate once they have applied and interviewed with you. Hiring methodologies like Topgrading are more efficient at getting poor candidates to weed themselves out early in the hiring process.

  • Be mindful of the legalities. You may be subject to federal, state, regional, and local laws. This depends on your industry, whether you handle background and social media checks in-house or rely on third parties. Be aware that many states prohibit adverse action based on off-duty conduct or allow it under specific circumstances. It is a good idea to seek legal counsel

What about pundits who suggest that employers checking social media before hiring is irresponsible or dangerous?

Here is a quote from Amie Lawrence Ph.D., product development manager at PSI.

"Let's say you have whittled your applicant pool down to three final candidates, and you want to look at social media information on these candidates. You find out that candidate 1 has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. All of candidate 1’s information is public and available. You find only a Facebook account for candidate 2 and most of the information is private. Candidate 3 has no social media accounts at all for you to review.

You have a lot of information to review for candidate 1, a little information to review on candidate 2 and no information to review on candidate 3. Unless you "require" your candidates to provide access to their social media accounts as part of the process (which I would have concerns about as well) you are relying on the information made public by the candidate."

Is this as dire of a situation as Dr. Lawrence would suggest? It certainly does not seem that way. In fact, it seems to me that she provides the solution to her dilemma. What is the answer?

Document the steps taken for each candidate, just as she has done here!

Add detailed notes outlining what you are looking for (see above) and, finally, take the time to document when candidate met (or failed to meet) specific, objective criteria. The very same criteria laid out in your job description. If you can show objectively why candidates progressed further in your hiring process or why they were disqualified there is no conflict.

Conclusion: Social Media Checks Are An Important Part Of The Process

According to HireRight's employment screening benchmark report, 85 percent of employers caught candidates lying on their resume. The hiring process comes with an inherent conflict of interest. As an employer, you want to know who your candidates really are. Contrast this with your candidate's goals.

They are looking to maximize the amount of money, incentives, and opportunities they receive. Most of these candidates will present you with a polished cover letter and resume, glowing references and a charming personality.

Is this really who they are?

Social media screening, when combined with standard background checks, help you to verify your candidate's claims. If you are like most employers, you are not looking to spy on your candidates. You are simply looking for clues to verify their trustworthiness. Social media is a helpful last step. A careful approach and an emphasis on compliance mean you will have the data you need to make prudent hiring decisions, one candidate at a time.

  • Do you use social media to screen potential candidates?

  • What are your processes for using social media?