In a world of increasing competition and choices, employers look for tools to reinforce smart hiring decisions. In 2021, “92% of companies” used social media to assess potential talent (a rapid increase from 2018 where companies used it only 70% of the time). This process of screening a job candidate’s social media platforms is sometimes called cybervetting. It’s a tricky business –often with high risk. But it is becoming a popular and accepted practice. Companies review social media accounts to mitigate the risk of hiring the wrong person for a role and to get a sense of an applicant’s behaviors and values. Think of it as a corporate vibe check on an employee.
What Is Social Media Screening?
What does it really mean to scan an applicant on social media? And why do companies engage in this practice? Remote work has only encouraged people to live more of their lives on social media, which means these platforms are an ever-evolving and up-to-date glimpse into a candidate’s profile. These platforms include LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Any one of them can function as a background check but these scans aren’t clear-cut.
Reviewing applicants through the lens of social media is intrinsically complicated. This is precisely why social media screenings are ethically and legally problematic. So, before a company goes this route, it must weigh the risks and benefits.
The risk: social media scans can blur professional and personal lines for an employee – resulting in an illegal invasion of privacy, if information is obtained without consent.
The benefit: social media scans provide a fast assessment of a candidate’s prejudices (racism, sexism, violence, sexual explicitness) that may pose a danger in the workplace.
Finding a middle ground: if a company is committed to social media scanning, it must strike a delicate balance between gaining information and being intrusive. An employer must 1) set clear, standardized guidelines when engaging in a background check. 2) Keep legal liability low by staying compliant with consent, confidentiality, and privacy laws. 3) Stay respectful: review content specific to an employee’s character on a job (qualities like leadership, sociability, diplomacy).
Understanding the Ethical & Legal Risks
As companies go about their vetting process, they must stay ethical and mindful of the law. Here are a few of the considerations companies should know: 1) it can be a breach of confidentiality and privacy. 2) Information taken out of context can lead to an employer making unfair judgments of a candidate. 3) Unchecked curiosity into an employee’s background can lead to illegal discrimination. 4) If companies get carried away with cybervetting, the practice can result in a misuse of company resources.
Social media job screenings, if not diligently managed, also carry substantial legal risk. If a company goes forward with the process, it must have legal and HR counsel on board to make sure it is compliant with these laws and regulations:
- HIPAA Act: this law protects an employee’s right to privacy and consent.
- Fair Credit Reporting Act: this ensures the accuracy, fairness, and privacy of the employee during credit background checks.
- Civil Rights Act on Race: prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin for companies hiring or firing.
- Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM): states that all HR professionals must follow a code of ethics when acquiring information about employees and protect the rights of the individual.
The Benefit of a Social Media Background Check
Despite the risks, a background check has its practical positives so long as all information is acquired publicly and/or with the employee's consent. This requirement of consent and employee acknowledgment is crucial. Here are the benefits in detail:
- Social media can provide an efficient verification into an applicant’s identity.
- It can also help employers comply with (DEI) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies.
- It can save a company money and training resources by preventing a poor investment in the wrong candidate.
- It can also prevent liability by exposing behaviors that may violate “accepted standards of conduct.
- It can offer insight into an applicant’s personality and positive qualities
Consider Social Media for More Than Applicant Screenings
Now that we’ve examined the risks and benefits, it’s worth exploring the role that social media can play in the hiring and recruiting process overall. Right now, companies use social media as a vetting platform. But what if they viewed it as a tool for engagement? If they shifted into this mindset, employers could solicit the right talent at the same time as eliminating the wrong or potentially inappropriate ones. This would be a 2-in-1 process, mitigating hiring risks while increasing the chance of finding ideal applicants.
Statistics suggest that employees are highly receptive to this social media shift. 70% of job seekers report being more inclined to apply for jobs at companies that have a social media presence. And 90% of job seekers consider an employer's branding when applying for jobs, according to a 2019 report from Wonderful Workplaces.
Since applicants value branding, why not show it? If companies share curated content on social media, they not only leverage their brand, they also provide an opportunity to engage with job applicants directly. Doing so shows the applicant this is a company with modern, forward-looking communications.
Job seekers also want to develop trust in the companies they might work for, and added transparency on social media helps enforce these values. Workplace culture is also extremely important and one of the biggest factors that inform an applicant’s decision to take a job. For example, The Great Resignation, which has coincided with COVID-19, has underscored that employees want to work for places that are fulfilling, supportive, and healthy. Friendly and respectful social media engagement can be a way to show candidates they are joining an enlightened and positive workplace.
Successful hiring is about finding the right fit. If a company is looking to revitalize its culture and embrace a hybrid work model, social media can reflect those goals.
How To Screen Safely: Set Compliance Guidelines
If companies go ahead with social media screenings, they must set rigid compliance guidelines. Here are the core components to screen an applicant safely:
- Only use publicly available information
- Only use information obtained with the employee’s consent
- Establish a clear guideline for “social media screening,” use for all candidates and follow a consistent set of criteria. A company’s HR or legal department can oversee this and draw up a checklist for what items to look for, such as:
- Hate speech
- Insults and bullying
- Obscene and derogatory language
- Threat of violence
- Threat of discrimination
- Threat of vandalism / piracy
- Drug and narcotic-related images
- Explicit / racy images
- Violent images
Employees must refer to these guidelines to stay consistent. Each social media screening should be handled with diligence, care, respect, and professionalism. This also means focusing on content that showcases an employee’s conduct, behavior, and job performance. In short, keep perspective. Social media content is only part of a whole person and is not necessarily representative of an applicant’s full self.
To recap, the question of an employer intruding on an employee’s or applicant’s personal life, as reflected in social media and job screenings, raises countless ethical issues. On the whole, it can impinge on the employee’s freedom, privacy, and dignity. That said, it is becoming a regular practice. Companies must stay rigorous in following clear guidelines. The only way an employer can ethically screen a candidate’s social media is if the information is 1) directly related to job performance, 2) consent from the employee is obtained, 3) information is publicly available, and 4) the employer’s legal and HR teams are involved to safeguard the process.