Spying on Social Media

Facebook’s monthly active user numbers have been growing quarter over quarter since 2008, and they show no sign of slowing down. At this point, they have over 2.7 billion monthly active users. To put it another way, that’s a little over a third of the entire population of the world. Chances are, to put it lightly, pretty good that your applicants have Facebook profiles.

That’s just Facebook. Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram; social media is mainstream. Virtually everyone has at least one social media profile, though how much they use it, how easy it is to find and identify as theirs, and how valuable it is will vary wildly.

So, here’s a question: should you use the information on social media as part of your pre-employment screening? If so, when? If not, why not?

We spoke about this briefly in our post about remotely screening candidates earlier this month, but today we’re going to dig a bit deeper into this strategy.

Growing Trends

Using social media to screen potential employees – and even to monitor existing employees for adherence to company policies – is a growing trend. According to a survey performed by The Manifest:

“Most employers (90%) factor a job candidate’s social media accounts into their hiring decisions and 79% have rejected a candidate based on their social media content.”

Social media is primarily public information. It often represents how a candidate acts in their personal life. Those actions and that attitude can inform how a candidate would perform in their job.

Social Media for Candidate Evaluation

Employers face a difficult task when they need to hire a candidate for a role, especially a high-level position within the company. Resumes, cover letters, and interviews only show part of a candidate, and it’s the part they’ve practiced and polished to impress you.

We’ve all experienced times where a candidate who looked good on paper fell short of our expectations while on the job. Probationary periods exist for a reason, after all. If you can get an additional channel of insight into a candidate that can help you make an informed decision, shouldn’t you take advantage of it?

After all, the cost of a bad hire can be devastating to a small business and harmful to a large one. Studies have estimated the financial cost of a bad hire can range from $25,000 to $190,000.

The Pros of Using Social Media Screening

First, let’s talk about some of the benefits of screening candidates via their social media presence before making a hiring decision.

LinkedIn Research

Information is free and generally easy to access. Researching a candidate can be as simple as putting their name into Google or the Facebook search bar, then verifying that you have the right person using other pieces of information from their resumes, such as location or work history. Matt Erhard, from Summit Research Group, says,

“The three main platforms that most employers check are LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.”

Let’s look into how these three are compared:

  • LinkedIn is generally the most curated and presentable because it is geared towards professional networking rather than casual use. As such, it tends to be the most valuable for employers looking for more in-depth information and insight into a candidate’s work history and skillset.
  • Twitter can be very fickle. Some users use it as a microblogging platform, to retweet content that interests them or engages with content creators they like. Other people use it to post glorified nonsense that has little bearing on their quality as a job candidate. It’s generally the least useful platform in many cases.
  • Facebook has the most personal, casual use. As such, it can be useful to get a picture of how a person acts when they’re not being judged for those actions. However, an increasing number of people are locking down their profiles to make it more difficult to “doxx” them.

Other platforms may garner other kinds of information about a candidate. Instagram can bring insight into how a candidate acts on vacation, or what they do as a hobby, or it might be nothing more than pictures of their pets. The important thing to remember is that while a social media profile can be valuable information, it also might be irrelevant to their suitability as an employee.

Information you find can weed out unsavory candidates. Facebook and Twitter are both often responsible for lost jobs and lost opportunities for candidates. Today’s political climate means that many people feel comfortable posting hate against specific people or groups, posting threats, or bad-mouthing their current employers.

“Companies can hold employees accountable for their social media conduct,” says Katrina Grider, an attorney in Houston. [But] employees need to be educated about their responsibilities and the consequences of their social media conduct and activities.”

A candidate who feels comfortable posting hate speech is a liability waiting to happen for workplace harassment, a hostile work environment, or escalation.

Social Media Toxicity

You can get a better sense of a candidate’s personality and cultural fit through personal social media. A candidate who posts about football and bar-hopping will fit right in with an office that has a fantasy football pool and uses local tickets as incentives. A candidate who dislikes dogs might not be a great choice for an office with “take your dog to work day” events. There are a lot of minor contextual details you can learn about a candidate that might make them a poor fit for your company. That said, you have to use caution when using these kinds of details to reject a candidate, for reasons we’ll discuss later.

The Cons of Using Social Media Screening

While the ability to screen candidates based on their social media profiles has some merit, there are also drawbacks to the practice.

It can take a lot of time if you perform screening too early in the hiring process. Researching a candidate, identifying them and making sure you have the right person, and researching their background through social media can take quite a bit of time. If you’re using it as part of your early screening, you may be digging into thousands of profiles, dramatically delaying your time to hire. If you’re going to use a social media background check, it should be on candidates who have made it through at least the first interview.

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A social media presence isn’t necessarily representative of the candidate’s work attitude. Cashiers and waitresses have a “customer service voice” that they turn off when they’re outside work. Many people maintain different personas for different realms of their personal lives. How they act on Facebook – so long as they aren’t violating social mores, posting about illegal drug use, or promoting hate speech – is not necessarily a good representation of how they’ll behave in your office.

Social Media Research

An increasing number of candidates hide their profiles or sculpt them to build a personal brand. At this point, one of the number one pieces of advice to job seekers is to build a personal brand. Dedicated job seekers hide most of their social media activity and curate a public persona that is just as polished as their resume and their interview persona. You won’t necessarily learn anything of value through your social media background check.

There’s a risk here as well. Some employers attempt to add candidates as friends, follow protected accounts, or dig into less scrupulous methods to view social media content otherwise hidden. This taps into an ethical issue; if the information is hidden from public view, but can be accessed if the user accepts a friend request, is it ethical to use? Generally, no. You should avoid digging too deep, especially if you have to request access to the information implicitly.

There’s a very real risk of unconscious bias in your decision making. Edna Nakamoto, the founder of The HR Manager, offers a scenario:

“What about the woman who just applied? Maybe you see her terrific profile plus the fact that she’s just announced that she’s pregnant. You know you can’t discriminate based on pregnancy, but you may still have had a little nagging thought of “oh, she will go on maternity leave within the year if I hire her.” Unconscious bias can affect everyone from time to time.”

Even if you consciously know you can’t discriminate based on specific information and characteristics you see, you may still do so unconsciously.

The Legality of Social Media Screening

Three relevant laws can apply to social media background checks.

  1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. These are protections against discrimination according to categories such as race, color, religion, gender, disability, and age. It’s difficult to perform a social media background check without discovering at least some of these qualities, leading to unconscious bias. If a candidate believes they may have been passed over for an opportunity because of such a quality, they can potentially bring a discrimination suit against you.
  2. The Fair Credit Reporting Act. This is the protection of privacy and private information primarily relating to credit reports, but can also apply to social media information. Among other things, this legislation requires you to be able to make background check reports available to candidates if they request it. Because social media screenings are often handled casually, this can be a source of liability.
  3. State laws. Several states have laws limiting what an employer can ask for or what they can screen as part of an employment decision. For example, many states prohibit companies from requiring that users disclose login information or log in to their accounts in an employer’s presence, which can reveal hidden information.

In general, screening candidates by their social media presence is legal but is best performed by a trained HR professional or a third-party background check service, rather than a prospective boss or CEO.

Reasons for Not HIring for Social Media

(Image credit: Software Advice)

There’s also the issue of free speech. While the concept of free speech is widely misunderstood (the first amendment only protects against punishment by the government, not by private entities such as businesses), some forms of speech such as political affiliation are protected in many states. Even in states with those protections, Grider says:

“Online speech attacking other persons’ immutable characteristics protected by law – such as age, race, ethnicity, sex, and religion – or that constitutes workplace harassment is not protected.”

In other words, it’s perfectly legal and ethical to fire (or refuse to hire) someone whose social media posts reveal hate speech, illegal content, fraud, threats, and similar content.

How to Ethically Perform a Social Media Background Check

If you want to use social media information to screen candidates, here are some essential Dos and Don’ts.

Dos and Donts

 Do: Consider using a third-party background check service. This has two important benefits: it generates a tangible report that can be provided if a candidate requests it, and it can appropriately remove protected information to avoid unconscious bias in your decision-making process.

 Do: Limit your screening to relevant information. A candidate’s hobbies, political affiliation, preference for pets, or casual posting style are not relevant to their workplace performance and should be ignored.

 Do: Use a consistent screening process for every candidate. Apply this process at the same point in the interview process, and apply it equally to all candidates. Applying it to some candidates and not all of them can show bias.

 Do: Be up-front about screening candidates via social media, what you look for, and how you perform that research.

 Don’t: Screen candidates too early in the process. As mentioned above, this can take far too much time and energy and has very little reward when other forms of screening are more effective.

 Don’t: Take everything you see at face value. Social media profiles often have a lot of contexts that you miss as an outsider looking in. Posts can be ironic or misconstrued without such context, and basing a decision on them can leave you bereft of a quality candidate.

Don’t: Limit your research to just the big social media profiles. Some candidates may have established a broader presence on sites such as StackOverflow, Medium, or GitHub, which can be valuable for certain kinds of roles. Think about the context of the role and what sites a good candidate might use.

Overall, using social media to screen your candidates can be a valuable tool, particularly when judging an individual’s character. However, it’s not necessarily reliable and should not be a significant component of your decision making. Use it for context and to decide between two very similar candidates, not as a primary driving factor in your hiring.

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