5 Best Practices for Safe, Compliant Social Media Screening

Incorporating social media screening as part of the hiring process has become increasingly common in today’s digital age. Employers frequently search Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms to gain insights into a candidate’s background, behavior and personality.

But navigating this terrain can be tricky. Social media screening raises ethical and compliance questions regarding privacy, discrimination and bias. It’s imperative to know the pitfalls it can bring, the federal and state guidelines that govern its use and the best practices to employ.

Why should I worry?

A top concern is adherence to anti-discrimination practices, such as those outlined in the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The EEOC has also issued guidance for preventing discrimination during hiring. The information gathered during social media screening shouldn’t create any form of bias based on a candidate’s protected characteristics.

That said, regulations aren’t the only concern you should have. For one thing, the information you find might not be accurate. People often present a curated version of their lives on social media, highlighting their best moments and hiding red-flag behavior. They might also exaggerate their achievements and experiences.

Or maybe they’ve made changes in their lifestyle that make older posts irrelevant. An inappropriate post from years ago might not represent a candidate’s current values or maturity level. In short, the public version of an applicant’s life doesn’t necessarily reflect their reality.

You should also consider the chances of misidentification. Social media platforms have billions of users worldwide. This makes it genuinely possible to find a profile with the same (or similar) name as your applicant. Unless your social media screening process emphasizes thoroughly verifying identification, you risk pinning someone else’s behavior—good or bad—on your applicant.

Context is another concern. A single post or photo can easily be misinterpreted without understanding the intent with which it was shared. For example, a sarcastic comment might be seen as genuine. A shared post could be interpreted as an endorsement instead of a critique, especially in a politically charged environment.

Finally, remember that social media is largely meant to be exactly that—social. Many people are adept at keeping their personal lives out of the workplace. Just because you see a photo of them indulging in a few drinks, that doesn’t mean they won’t be productive on the job.

Does that mean I shouldn’t use social media screening?

Not necessarily! Just be prudent with it. To mitigate the risks associated with using social media screens in the hiring process, follow these five best practices.

Best Practice #1: Develop a social media screening policy. 

Create and document a policy outlining the purpose, scope and procedure for your social media screening. This helps minimize the risk of bias or discrimination. Among other stipulations, it should separate the decision-makers in the hiring process from those conducting social media checks. A well-defined policy ensures the hiring process is fair, ethical and complaint and encourages informed decision making.

Best Practice #2: Educate your staff.

Train personnel responsible for social media screening on the legal and ethical aspects of the practice.  Make sure they apply the screening process consistently to all candidates in the same job category.

Best Practice #3: Be transparent. 

Make sure the candidate knows about the process. If you’re using a third party for social media screening, you’re required to receive written permission from the candidate prior to the screen.

Best Practice #4: Be respectful.

Respect candidates’ privacy settings. Only view publicly available information, and do not attempt to access private or restricted content. Refrain from “friending” or “following” candidates during the hiring process.

Best Practice #5: Be impartial and screen specific to the job.

When reviewing a candidate’s social media profiles, concentrate on professional information relevant to the job, such as work skills and accomplishments. Carefully document the information obtained to ensure it’s consistent with the candidate’s qualifications and the job requirements. Do not access or use a candidate’s protected characteristics (race, religion, gender, disability, marital status or family information).

What if I find something negative?  

If you come across potentially negative information during social media screening, handle the situation carefully. Avoid hasty action; a hiring decision should not be made solely on a negative social media post or profile. Consider all relevant information, and remember that social media profiles may not fully represent a person’s character or abilities.

If you still have concerns about negative findings, seek legal advice before taking further steps. They’ll provide clarification on how to proceed in a compliant and reasonable manner.

Social media screening during the hiring process can be a valuable tool for employers. Just remember to proceed with a keen awareness of the legal and ethical considerations involved. Always balance respecting candidates’ privacy with gathering relevant, job-related information to make informed hiring decisions.

An experienced HR consultant can guide you in establishing best practices for social media screening. By following federal and state laws, creating a well-defined policy and using best practices, you can effectively—and ethically—incorporate these checks into your hiring process.


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