Social media screening has become an increasingly common practice in recruitment. As a tool, it provides employers with a glimpse into a candidate's personal life— who they are. However, the ethics and legality of social media screening for employment are subjects of ongoing debate.
Is social media screening an invasion of privacy or a useful and readily available resource? In the same vein, is it fair to penalize a job candidate or an employee based on what they shared on social media? Is it, in essence, any different from using employee background check services?
In this article, we’ll explore the rise of social media screening in recruitment, discuss the benefits and pitfalls, highlight legal and ethical considerations, and outline best practices to leverage and successfully incorporate it within your hiring process.
The Rise of Social Media Screening
According to an SHRM report, 84% of companies leverage social media for recruitment, and 43% use it to screen applicants. In a survey conducted by CareerBuilder, at least 70% of HR professionals and hiring managers claimed to use social media to research candidates.
The increasing popularity of social media screening in recruitment results from the exponential growth and widespread adoption of social media platforms like Facebook, X, TikTok, and LinkedIn.
Because people share so much of their beliefs, personal traits, and behavior on social channels, these platforms have become rich sources of information. Recruiters and employers can utilize the information here to gain a deeper understanding of potential candidates. However, with the exception of LinkedIn, the culture of social media is informal— not the kind of stuff you’d put on your resume.
Social Media Screening Vs. Privacy
Generally speaking, social media profiles are a reflection of a person in their personal life as opposed to a professional representation they’d willingly show a potential employer. But, the debate of whether or not social media screening is ethical or not hinges on the right to privacy. After all, if a person posts information about themselves on the internet, how concerned can they be about keeping that information private?
Perhaps the greatest benefit of social media screening is that it’s so uncensored. As a means of background screening, a social media user’s feed can go back years and show their opinions, hobbies, values, priorities, and temperament. These are aspects of a person that would otherwise be very difficult to come by, and that would certainly not be as well outlined in a resume and standard job interview. The insight these profiles offer is of high interest to recruiting teams for determining cultural fit, regardless of whether it was curated for this purpose or not.
The main controversy surrounding social media screening is that, by nature, a candidate’s social profiles have nothing to do with work, so why should the content featured here be considered? Naturally, there is a subsect of professionals for whom this isn’t true. Many people use LinkedIn, X, TikTik, and other platforms primarily as a means to build their professional brand.
For a large percentage of social media users, however, their feeds are purely about their personal lives. Their social media is not curated to look professional, but rather to share experiences and anecdotes they find funny or interesting. Should what a person finds funny or interesting should matter in their hiring process?
Unfortunately, it does. A person’s online presence and conduct matter to employers for two reasons:
- Pre-hiring, they can get a sense of a potential employee in terms of personality in culture fit.
- In the eyes of the general public, an employee’s online conduct becomes an extension of their employer’s.
Anything a recruiter can find about a candidate online is also visible to others. Because social media is so public employees become inadvertent spokespeople for their employer. A company may look unfavorably at an employee who is rude or profane on social media because their association with the person hurts their brand. Just about any employer would want to distance themselves from an employee who posts discriminatory or illegal content.
Many social media users have found this out the hard way. Cavalier use of social media cost them their jobs. It’s worth noting, however, that employers only have solid legal standing for firing an employee if they have a social media policy in place, and the employee is in violation of it. These parameters don’t exist when a recruiter reviews a job candidate’s social media
A Controversial Source of Candidate Insight
Social media screening comes with its complications. While it can help gather valuable insights, it also introduces potential legal and ethical dilemmas.
For example, social media profiles often reveal protected class characteristics like race, religion, age, and gender. Even if these factors are not explicitly used in reviewing an applicant’s social media platforms, it is impossible for recruiters not to take note of these data points.
Proving in a legal setting that, for example, a candidate’s race was not taken into consideration when their social media was reviewed can be challenging. By its nature, there is the danger that social media can bring bias to the hiring process.
Despite these potential hurdles, the application of social media screening continues to expand. This is primarily because its perceived benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And, as the workforce becomes more digitally oriented, the prevalence of social media screening in recruitment is set to increase even further.
The Benefits of Social Media Screening
Comprehensive Candidate Assessment
Delving into a candidate's social media profiles, allows recruiters to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the individual, uncovering facets of their personality, interests, and values that may not be discernible from a resume, cover letter, or interview. This also serves as a gauge of how aligned their career is with their personality.
With the increased popularity of remote work, social media background checks become an additional tool to assess a candidate's cultural fit while never actually meeting them in person.
Although video interview platforms offer a user-friendly candidate pipeline and highly effective means of sharing notes and candidate scores, these tools can no more discern whether a candidate is portraying themselves accurately than an in-person interview. The type of content and interaction displayed on their social media is highly insightful by comparison.
Verification of Information
Social media screening can serve as a fact-checking tool for verifying information provided by the candidate. At the very least, a candidate’s Facebook, LinkedIn, and other profiles can be used to monitor consistency in their career information. This process helps confirm the candidate's honesty.
For instance, if a candidate claims to have graduated from a particular college or high school, a quick look at their LinkedIn profile can verify this.
Identification of Red Flags
One of the most significant benefits of social media screening is its ability to identify potential red flags. Inappropriate behavior, discriminatory remarks, or evidence of illegal activities can all be uncovered through a thorough review of a candidate's social media activity. This can help employers avoid potential issues down the line and ensure that they hire individuals who uphold the company's values and standards. For example, a candidate's repeated use of offensive language or disrespectful comments about certain groups on their social media platforms could be a warning sign. If hired, they put the company’s brand and reputation at risk. Identifying these red flags early can help employers sidestep potential problems in the future, ensuring they bring on board individuals who truly embody the company's ethos and principles.
Similarly, a person who habitually uses social media as a means to vent about their job, colleagues, or employer would likely do the same at a new position. While they are not violating any laws in complaining about work online, a person who displays the behavior is not an attractive candidate.
Social media screening stands as a practical, budget-friendly strategy in the recruitment process.
While various background checks and assessment services are available at a fee, social media profiles are freely accessible. In many ways, social media screening allows for similar identification of promising job candidates than a background check service would.
It is now also possible to get dedicated professional tools and services for social media screening. Oftentimes, these tools use artificial intelligence to make the process faster and more targeted through the use of specific keywords and parameters.
Insight into Professional Network
Social media platforms, particularly LinkedIn, can provide insight into a candidate's circle of influence and professional network. This can give employers an idea of who the candidate associates with, their industry involvement, and how they interact with their peers.
Such insights can be valuable in assessing a candidate's industry engagement and potential fit within the team.
What Do Recruiters Look for During Social Media Screening?
Social media can be used to determine a job seeker’s character and to affirm the information they’ve provided in their job application.
As they review social media accounts, recruiters typically look for information that supports a candidate's qualifications for the job, such as relevant professional posts or interactions. The exact content that would be deemed a positive or negative in a recruiter’s eyes depends on the position to be filled and the culture of the company.
Here are some general examples of what a hiring team notes as they scroll through a candidate’s feed:
- Professionalism: Ability to maintain a professional demeanor and appropriate tone online.
- Communication skills: Well-articulated posts and respectful interactions.
- Evidence of qualifications and skills: Posts related to their field of expertise, qualifications, or training opportunities.
- Consistency: A trustworthy candidate’s online presence will reflect the employment history outlined in their job application.
- Cultural fit: Participation in activities that align with the company's culture.
- Creativity and innovation: Unique insights or examples of their creative work.
When recruiters see these positive indicators during social media screening, it can reinforce a potential hire’s suitability for the role. For instance, a candidate's thoughtful posts on industry trends can demonstrate their expertise and active engagement in their field.
- Disrespectful content: Offensive posts, explicit material, or intolerance of opposing views can be a major red flag.
- Discriminatory remarks: Racist remarks, sexism, or other forms of hate speech can indicate a lack of respect for diversity and inclusion.
- Evidence of illegal activities: For example, posts that show the candidate engaging in vandalism, substance abuse, or fraud.
- Negative remarks about previous employers: Publicly bad-mouthing previous employers can suggest a lack of professionalism.
- Inconsistencies in information: Discrepancies between a candidate's resume and social media profiles can raise questions about their honesty.
- Indiscretion: A person who overshares about internal events at their work, posts wisecracks about their boss, or jokes about how little work they can get away with doing is probably not a great hire.
- Confrontation: A candidate who frequently engages in online arguments might be seen as a potential source of conflict in the workplace.
When recruiters run social media screening on a candidate, they look for patterns of the behaviors listed above. If, for example, a candidate shows a pattern of posting disrespectful content, it is safer for the company to take the candidate out of consideration than to hire them based on an assumption that this will continue into the future. Besides the risk hiring the candidate poses to the brand, there is also the likelihood that they will bring the same disrespectful language into the workplace.
Spotting these red flags can help recruiters avoid potential issues down the line.
The Drawbacks of Social Media Screening
Despite its benefits, social media screening is not without controversy. Critics argue that it involves discrimination, invasion of privacy, and the potential for misinterpretation.
Let’s look at the downsides of social media screening more closely.
Invasion of Privacy
Employers use social media to evaluate potential hires and check up on current employees. But many people view their social media profiles as a personal space to interact with friends and family, and they may not expect or appreciate potential employers scrutinizing their posts.
In the absence of a clear social media policy, any disciplinary action a company takes against a current employee due to their social media content can also be considered unfair.
Bear in mind that a lot of what recruiters see about a candidate on social media sites is beyond their control. Perhaps a friend tagged them in party photos or a tasteless joke. When you run a social media search for the candidate, these things will come up.
Potential for Bias
Social media screening can inadvertently lead to bias in the hiring process. When recruiters have access to a candidate's personal interests and activities, they might unconsciously favor candidates with whom they share common interests, leading to unfair hiring practices.
Hiring teams may also judge a candidate’s suitability based on social media content without considering its recency. A lot of social media content on a candidate’s feed may have been posted a long time ago. Consequently, a candidate may be negatively affected by an opinion they no longer hold or a behavior they no longer emulate.
Unreliability of Information
Not all information on social media is reliable or relevant to a candidate's job performance. For instance, a candidate might have a private profile, multiple profiles, or use a pseudonym, making it difficult to verify the information.
Additionally, social media does not provide comprehensive information about a candidate's background, such as criminal records, the way an employee background check service does.
Potential Legal Risks
There are legal risks associated with social media screening. For example, if a recruiter comes across information about a candidate's protected characteristics (such as race, religion, or age), and the candidate is not hired, the company could potentially face discrimination claims.
Social media screening can be a time-consuming process. With the multitude of social media platforms and the vast amount of content shared, sifting through a candidate's social media presence can take a significant amount of time with little payoff.
Recruiters must be aware of these potential drawbacks and decide if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages before incorporating social media screening in their hiring process.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
The legal and ethical dimensions of social media screening are intricate and multifaceted.
The regulations governing this practice are not uniform across the globe, and even within a single country, they can differ from one state to another. For instance, in the United States, it's against the law to base hiring decisions on protected attributes such as race, religion, or sexual orientation, which can be readily discerned from social media profiles.
Legal Aspects of Social Media Screening
The legal framework around social media screening is not fully developed. It is the compliance with existing laws, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Civil Rights Act, that recruiters need to be aware of.
Social media can expose race, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, and other protected characteristics that may not be disclosed in a resume. This raises the potential for discrimination based on a protected class. If a candidate can demonstrate that their job application was negatively impacted by a prospective employer's social media investigation, then the employer could be held accountable in an anti-discrimination lawsuit.
The U.S. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) issued guidelines on pre-employment checks. This includes recommendations on how businesses should conduct social media screening, advising that decisions based on age, race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation should be avoided.
Ethical Implications of Social Media Screening
On the ethical front, the controversy surrounding social media screening revolves around the appropriateness of evaluating candidates based on their private lives.
We know social media screening can pose ethical challenges concerning the Civil Rights Act’s protected groups: Race, color, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, and disability.
But what about other aspects of a candidate’s life? Is it ethically acceptable to discriminate based on non-protected classes such as gender identity, marital status, parental status, political beliefs and affiliation, or even appearance? These are all aspects that a resume hides and are generally considered unethical to inquire about in interviews. Yet, a cursory scroll through a candidate’s social feed will reveal many of these details.
While social media screening can offer valuable insights into a candidate's personality and suitability for the company culture, recruiters need to be mindful of these potential legal and ethical issues and approach the process with due diligence. For example, a company can make it part of their internal hiring policy not to screen candidates before interviewing them.
Best Practices for Social Media Screening
When it comes to social media screening, it's crucial to approach the process with clear guidelines to ensure fairness, legality, and respect for candidates' privacy.
We recommend these best practices for conducting social media screening:
- Develop and maintain clear policies: Establish company policy for pre-employment background checks that outline guidelines around social media screening. This includes defining what information is relevant to the hiring process and what is not.
- Focus on publicly available information: Avoid prying into private accounts or information that the candidate has chosen to keep private. Refrain from veering into the profiles of the candidate’s family and friends.
- Obtain the candidate's consent: Before conducting a social media screening, notify the candidate and get their written consent. This not only respects the candidate's privacy but also helps to avoid potential legal issues.
- Be consistent: Apply the same level of scrutiny to all candidates and capture the same data points in each screening. Meticulously combing through one candidate’s feed while taking a cursory glance at another can lead to discrimination or bias.
- Separate the screening and decision-making processes: To avoid unconscious bias, it's advisable to have different individuals conduct the screening and make the hiring decision. The person conducting the screening can provide a report of predetermined data points without revealing protected characteristics. For example, they can simply report on whether the candidate’s career history checks out, whether their feed contains illegal activity, and whether or not they show tendencies to discrimination.
- Document the process: Keep a record of the screening process, including what sites were checked and what information was considered relevant to the hiring decision. This can be helpful in case of any legal disputes.
- Stay updated on legal regulations: Laws regarding social media screening are evolving. Stay updated on the latest legal regulations in your country and state to ensure your screening process remains compliant.
By following these best practices, employers can leverage the benefits of social media screening while minimizing potential legal and ethical issues.
The Future of Social Media Screening
As social media continues to evolve, so too will the methodologies of social media screening. The advent of privacy-centric platforms and the evolving public perspective on digital privacy may require a shift in employers' tactics.
The increasing popularity of fleeting content, such as vanishing stories, and the rise in private groups and accounts, could pose challenges for employers seeking a thorough understanding of a candidate's online persona.
In addition, the legal parameters surrounding social media screening are set to progress in tandem with technological advancements. Consequently, businesses will need to stay updated on legal changes to ensure their practices remain within the bounds of the law. This might involve routine consultations with legal professionals, participation in industry-related seminars, or subscribing to newsletters focused on HR and legal matters.
The future of social media screening for recruitment and other functions of human resources will undeniably demand a delicate equilibrium between harnessing social media as a rich source of candidate data and upholding the digital privacy rights of individuals.
Social media screening is a great tool in modern recruitment, offering valuable insights into candidates' personalities and behaviors beyond their CVs. However, it has its ethical and legal challenges. The trick is to find a balance. We need to use social media to learn more about candidates, but we also need to respect their privacy.
To incorporate social media screening in your recruitment process, create clear policies and guidelines that keep up with the law and understand how people feel about privacy. That way, we can ensure we're ethically using social media screening. The future of social media screening is about more than just looking at a candidate's social media. It's about doing it in a way that respects their rights, values their privacy, and makes the hiring process fair for everyone.