Does your candidate screening process include checking out applicants’ social media? It’s a practice that has become common, but it introduces important ethical and legal considerations that employers should be aware of, along with potential impact on diversity and inclusion efforts.
Conducting general employment background checks is a well-established practice; they typically cover an applicant’s work history, credit history and possibly justice system involvement. But the practice of reviewing candidates’ social media accounts on platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook is much newer. Recent surveys indicate a majority of employers now use social media background checks to screen candidates, and that their findings range from alarming to impressive.
One use of social media information that seems particularly justifiable could be to eliminate candidates who demonstrate poor or even dangerous judgment and behavior in their personal life that might impact coworkers and the workplace if they were hired.
However, this — and any other — purpose for reviewing applicants’ social media raises the risk of legal liability because federal employment laws (including the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act) prohibit hiring based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and more. Any of these characteristics would likely be visible on an individual’s social media, so searching candidates’ social media may increase the risk of discrimination, or appearing to discriminate, based on these qualities.
Companies may hire an independent service to conduct social media-based background checks, rather than perform them themselves. This is intended to shield the employer from seeing information about candidates’ protected status and preserve the legality of the hiring process. However, the employer is responsible for ensuring the integrity of the independent service and may also be required to disclose this practice to applicants in advance.
Some states bar employers from asking applicants for access to their social media usernames and passwords. However, employers may still conduct searches of information that is publicly available on social media. Besides legal risks, one of the primary arguments against social media background screening is implicit bias. To avoid recruiting based on stereotypes, it’s recommended that hiring processes follow the notion of “blind recruiting,” removing personal information as much as possible. Also called “anonymous
recruiting,” the concept keeps the focus on skills, work experience, education and training and other essential factors that affect how a candidate would perform on the job.
“Blind recruiting” excludes consideration of other features of job candidates that would not impact their ability to perform a job, such as appearance or political affiliation. These characteristics would also likely be apparent in social media and knowing this information about a candidate could compromise the ethics of a hiring process and impact an organization’s efforts toward expanding diversity and inclusion in hiring.