Are social media background checks a smart way of vetting potential job candidates, or are they a risky proposition? In the vast majority of cases, there are better alternatives to “social stalking” for learning more about your applicants.
A few years ago, it looked like social media background checks (or social stalking, to use a less corporate—approved term) was going to become the new normal for employers. In 2012, a CareerBuilder survey indicated that 37% of employers were using social media websites to research prospective job candidates and help with hiring decisions. Two years later, the same CareerBuilder survey had gauged an additional 5% growth for the practice, with 42% of respondents admitting to using social media to vet applicants. Those numbers contrast dramatically with a similar survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2015, which noted that only 5% of organizations were using social media to make hiring decisions.
The Pros and Cons of Social Media Background Checks
So what’s the right answer here? Is “social stalking” something that nearly half of employers are doing to research their applicants, or is it something that only the smallest minority of companies are doing? Are social media background checks evolving into an accepted practice, or are they so frowned upon that your business should avoid them like the plague?
To be honest, the answer is closer to the latter. While social stalking can have its benefits in a hiring situation, most of those advantages are strongly outweighed by the potential cons. Sure, social media is a great place to see how your applicants behave in their “natural habitat.” Job interviews are performative; every hiring manager knows that. Applicants strive to put their best foot forward by emphasizing all of their positive attributes and downplaying their less flattering ones.
As a result, it can be tough to get a sense of who a person really is before you hire them and start working with them on a day—to-day basis. Looking up an applicant on Facebook or Twitter can help demystify them considerably. The average person feels extremely comfortable being who they are on social media—even if “who they are” entails offensive jokes, racist or sexist comments, rants about co—workers or bosses, photos depicting drug use and binge drinking, or other not—so—flattering factors.
Needless to say, a person who is willing to post that kind of offensive and short—sighted content on Facebook or Twitter probably won’t worry too much about disrespecting you or your other employees if you do choose to hire them. As such, social media can be a great way to weed out the riff raff and find the people who will fit better with your organization and with the image you want your employees to put forth.
The problem is, social media reveals so much more than just a few questionable posts or photos. Many job applicants these days—especially younger ones—live huge percentages of their lives on the internet. Social media profiles, then, are like online fingerprints, hubs of information that display not just a person’s opinions, hobbies, tastes, and personality, but also their race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, age, marital status, and more.
If all of these items raise a red flag in your head, it’s because they are the topics you are barred from asking questions about on a job application or in an interview. Employers aren’t supposed to know these pieces of information about an applicant because they can create a bias—consciously or unconsciously—that leads to discriminatory hiring. The EEOC has even spoken out against social media background checks because they can stand in the way of fair and objective employment decisions.
Alternatives to Social Stalking
Bottom line, if you are a hiring manager, you should not research your applicants on social media. After all, you do not want to put a target on your back for the EEOC to find. Playing by the commission’s rules is a must for avoiding legal difficulties down the road.
Luckily, there are still plenty of other ways you can learn about your applicants. In addition to detailed criminal history checks, there are also types of background checks you can run to research an applicant’s employment history, education, credit history, civil court history, driving record, and professional certifications or licenses. Sure, these checks won’t always give you a clear window into who your job candidates are. Maybe an applicant has no criminal history and his or her former employers refuse to provide you with any information other than job title and employment dates.
Usually, though, if you conduct a thorough background check , you will be able to spot signs of questionable behavior. Perhaps the job titles your applicant listed on her resume have been revised and puffed up compared to the jobs she actually held. This type of red flag indicates an applicant who isn’t afraid to lie to you and may well keep doing it on a regular basis if and when you hire them.
Perhaps a second applicant has held a lot of jobs in a short period of time. Start calling past employers to see what happened. You may find that not every previous employer is willing to talk. Eventually, though, you might find a former boss or supervisor willing to tell you that applicant in question was fired for consistently making sexually demeaning comments to his female co—workers, or that he never showed up to work on time. Patterns of poor behavior in the workplace tend to carry over from one job to the next, so digging through an applicant’s employee history can be a virtual goldmine of must—have information.
Of course, no two applicants are the same. It can be difficult sorting through various different types of background checks looking for possible red flags when, with social media, you can find out so much about a person so quickly. But in the interest of following equal employment opportunity laws (not to mention respecting the privacy of your prospective employees), it’s worth recognizing that, when it comes to social stalking, there are better methods for vetting your job candidates.
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