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Can You Include Social Media in Background Checks?

Posted by Ryan Howard on Tue, Mar 04, 2014

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We do get asked this question occasionally (and probably should more often). Let's take a closer look at why an employer would want to check out a potential employee's use of social media and if it's a good idea.

The Hiring Process has changed

Once, not long ago, a firm handshake, an impressive multi-page resume and desirable college degrees were the basic criteria used in hiring a new employee. Today, most companies ask for a resume of no more than one page, require a drug test and will conduct thorough pre-employment background checks — although a good handshake is still important.

From a well-conducted pre-employment background check, a potential employer can obtain a vast amount of information concerning a job applicant, including:

  • Verification of identity and legal status
  • Verification of previous employment, education, drivers and professional licenses, and  previous addresses
  • Information concerning any criminal charges and/or substance abuse.
  • A complete credit report history.

This information provides a thorough account regarding a potential employee’s “paper trail.” However, it does not provide much information regarding the more social and interactive aspects of this person.

During a face-to-face interview, a potential employee will typically be on their best behavior.  They will answer politely with the answers they believe you want to hear. They will be friendly and agreeable, non-confrontational and non-threatening. But how is the interviewer to be certain this is the interviewee’s true personality and not just a face they present in order to have a better chance at landing a job?

Why Social Media?

This question leads many employers to look for resources that might reveal the true person behind the interviewee persona. Social media is one place where people appear to let their true selves show; and employers often consider including social media in pre-employment background checks.

The average American spends more than 3 hours each day on social media. This statistic would lend credibility to using social media research as a viable way to learn more about a job candidate’s personality, temperament and relatively-uninhibited social interactions. At first glance, a social media check would appear to be a valid option. However, many experts warn these types of pre-employment background checks may have limited value.

  • One issue is what is known as “computer twins.” Two separate people may have similar, or identical, names and general background information. Verifying the pre-employment background check was performed on the correct person may be difficult and/or impossible.
  • Another issue is “cyber slamming” or “cyber bullying.” There are virtually no rules in place that prevent anyone from posting false and damaging information about another person. If social media is included in pre-employment background checks, it is not possible to completely separate truth from malicious fiction.
  • Many states have already passed, or are considering, legislation that prohibits an employer from requiring a potential (or current) employee to share their social media information.
  • Additionally, many people use a pseudonym, or “cyber identity,” as their identity within social media, making a background check prohibitively expensive and very possibly inaccurate.

Is it ever a good idea?

There are situations, however, when researching a job candidate’s social media background might be beneficial.

  • If the job applied for is a manager of public relations, or an in-office social media strategist, an evaluation of their on-line presence and knowledge might be invaluable.
  • A candidate’s profile on LinkedIn provides professional recommendations and connections, as well as a verification of work experience.

Thorough pre-employment background checks are important parts of evaluating any potential employee; but research into their social media presence is probably not necessary. Social media provides a type of “stage” where people can play a part and become a character that may not reflect the employee's work habits at all.

We always encourage employers to be very cautious researching a potential candidate on Social Media especially if it’s not job related. Checking out someone’s LinkedIn work experience and professional recommendations is totally fine. But for most jobs, sneaking a peek at your intern’s Facebook selfie from 2 years ago isn’t applicable. 

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Topics: Types of Background Checks, Employment Background Screening