Social Screening: Candidates – and Employers – Beware

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Guest Article by Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD, PHR, Principal, Renaissance Strategic Solutions (RSS)

Social screening has become increasingly popular. Employers are “googling” job candidates and searching social networking sites as part of their pre-employment background checks, and both employers and external recruiters are ramping up their efforts to source candidates using social networks. The practices have become so widespread that both established and start-up technology companies are creating software and services to facilitate these processes.

Though I have no doubt that social screening will become integrated into the employment practices of most organizations, I think both individuals and organizations should proceed with caution as we figure out the best ways to access and use available data in practical, legally defensible – and ethical – ways.

In this post, I provide a brief overview of social screening processes and share my advice and recommendations for both individuals and organizations. Not everyone will agree with my conservative approach. I welcome other people’s insights, healthy debate, and questions. The more we talk about these issues, the faster we’ll figure out the best way to proceed. Since I am in the US and this post is written from the US perspective, I especially welcome input from folks in other countries.

How Social Screening Works

The basic approach to social background checks is to enter an individual’s name and certain other defining characteristics (e.g., city, current/former employers, schools attended) to narrow the search. These searches can be conducted through search engines like Google or Bing, or on specific platforms like LinkedIn. The results will include any and all information that is publicly available, even from sites that are generally considered private.

Rather than looking for information on specific individuals, social sourcing is designed to identify folks who match a certain set of predefined criteria (e.g., a certified actuary with at least ten years of work experience who has expertise in defined benefit retirement plans and has worked for one of the large consulting firms). These searches, which are generally intended to identify highly-qualified passive candidates (i.e., those not actively looking for a new job), can also be conducted through the major search engines, but they are more likely to be run on specific platforms like LinkedIn.

Because conducting social searches can be cumbersome and time-consuming – as well as risky – technology companies now offer software and services to facilitate the process, primarily through automation. The companies introducing these new tools promote their ability to expedite and streamline the process and provide more accurate and reliable information. With respect to social background checks, they also promote their ability to produce results that are legally compliant – for example, by redacting protected-status information such as age, race, and religion.

Advice for Individuals

Even if you are not actively on the job market, your digital identity and activity can still be found through social searches. Therefore, it’s in your best interests to establish a strong positive digital presence and monitor and manage it regularly. There are myriad ways in which you can promote your professional brand, but for the purposes of this post my advice is limited to how you can protect it.

There are dozens of social media platforms in cyberspace, but LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are emerging as “the big three” social networking sites. Here are my specific recommendations for these three platforms from a social screening perspective, as well as some general advice:

LinkedIn: Make sure you have a robust profile that focuses on your professional activities, connections, and experience. You certainly want to present yourself in the best possible light, but you should not misrepresent your background, accomplishments, and/or skills. Even though LinkedIn provides the ability to include some limited personal information (e.g., marital status, date of birth), there’s no good professional reason to do so. In addition, you should think carefully about information you share regarding your hobbies, as well as the groups you join, the comments you make, and the items you share. If your network is public, make sure you’re thoughtful about the people you connect with. Always be cognizant of your professional identity and how it’s represented by your information and activities.

Twitter: If you’re going to have a public account (and most people do), make sure your Twitter handle (account name) is professional, your photo/image is appropriate, and your page is designed well. You shouldn’t feel compelled to tweet, but if you do remember that quality is more important than quantity. As with your LinkedIn activity, be aware of how your tweets reflect on your professional identity. Your followers and those you follow are a reflection of you as well. Make sure you’re comfortable with what your Twitter relationships may say about you. If you want to use Twitter for both personal and professional reasons, you may want to consider creating two Twitter accounts to separate and better manage your identities and activities.

Facebook: Although you can use Facebook as part of your career management efforts, most people use it primarily as a personal platform. And though some folks see no problem blending the personal and professional, I advise against it. Specifically, I recommend restricting your network to personal relationships rather than professional ones, and making sure you properly establish your privacy settings so that only certain information is publicly available.

Two things to keep in mind about tight privacy settings, one good and one not so good:

The good news: you can still use Facebook to learn about organizations and opportunities, promote yourself as a professional, and make connections. You don’t have to friend anyone to have a professional exchange with them on Facebook. And commenting on walls or having email exchanges won’t give others access to your profile information.

The not-so-good news: Always remember that even private digital information can become public. Act accordingly.

Additional recommendations:

  • Review the photos in which you’ve been tagged, and check the profiles of the friends who’ve tagged you (you may need to have someone else do this). If their profiles are unprotected, you may want to untag yourself. You may even want to ask them to delete the picture(s).
  • Review and pare down your list of friends. Unfriend folks you don’t really know, as well as folks you only have a professional relationship with (connect with them on LinkedIn instead).
  • Double check the pages you’ve liked and the groups you’ve joined (or been added to). Delete yourself from any pages/groups that could poorly reflect on you as a professional.

Some people may advocate establishing two Facebook accounts, one for personal use and one for private use. Doing so is a violation of Facebook’s terms of use, however, so I advise against it. Instead, leverage a platform like LinkedIn for your professional identity.


Other Social Media Platforms

If you have accounts on other social media sites (e.g., YouTube, Flickr, SlideShare), and/or you have a blog, define where the public/private boundary should be drawn for each and make the necessary changes to your account profiles and/or content. Err on the side of conservatism – something that may seem harmless to you could easily be misinterpreted by someone in a way that’s harmful to your interests.

Google Alerts

Set up Google alerts on your name, similar to what a prospective employer might search on. Make sure you are satisfied – or can at least live with – the information contained in the resulting links. If you don’t like what you find, take whatever action you can to clean up your digital presence.

Think before You Speak

Just as in real life, you will be judged on a whole host of factors in cyberspace. And since digital activity lacks the context and nuance that in-person interactions provide, those judgments – rightfully or wrongly – can be harsher. You should assume that anything you share on a digital platform can become public and remember to:

  • Present yourself and your ideas in a positive, civil manner
  • Use good grammar and check for typos
  • Abide by the explicit and implicit norms of a given platform/community
  • Make sure your contributions and comments on public forums are substantive
  • Don’t use foul language or make off-color comments (including jokes) that could be construed as offensive
  • Know your current employer’s social media and related policies and be sure to abide by them


Advice for Organizations

Although social sourcing and social background checking can be very powerful hiring tools, they are far from being risk-free. In fact, the risks may be even greater because each digital search leaves a discoverable trail and creates new documentation and tracking responsibilities. And just because social screening is a new frontier, that doesn’t mean the old rules (e.g., anti-discrimination laws) don’t apply.

Employers should also be careful with respect to their stance regarding individuals’ responsibility to protect their private information. It’s absolutely true that people are responsible for protecting their own privacy; however, a lot of people haven’t realized that yet, or they haven’t figured out how to do it. They are also dependent on and vulnerable to the actions of others, so they don’t have perfect control. Regardless, employers must accept the fact that they assume responsibility for what they see once they access an individual’s social networking profiles and activities. That responsibility adds another important element of risk.

Of the two screening processes, social sourcing creates fewer risks than social background checks. Generally speaking, employers and recruiters need to establish sourcing search processes that are internally consistent and legally defensible (at federal, state, and local levels). The searches should be based on bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs) and job-specific education, skills and experiences, and should properly address risks such as adverse impact and adverse selection. The processes may also include steps to insure that legally-protected candidate information is not revealed to decision makers too early in the sourcing process.

The risks associated with conducting social background checks include cases of mistaken identity, fake or prank accounts and activity, and inaccurate information. There are also a host of compliance issues to be managed with respect to laws at the federal, state and local levels. These include the non-discrimination laws referenced above, as well as the Fair Credit Report Act (if a third-party is used to conduct the checks) and the Stored Communications Act. And beyond the legal issues are ethical and cultural considerations that organizations should not ignore or be too quick to dismiss.

Before HR professionals, hiring managers and recruiters engage in social background checking, they should ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Do we have a legitimate business reason for conducting these searches? If so, what is it? What would we learn from a social background check that we wouldn’t learn from the applicant review and interview process?
  2. Would we go to a candidate’s house and hang outside to check their comings and goings, as well as their friends, family & other visitors? Would we go through their garbage? Would we follow them to a cafe, restaurant or bar and listen in on their conversations? If not, why are we engaging in comparable activity in cyberspace?
  3. Would we be comfortable with other people conducting similar searches on us, whether they be future employers or employees? Are our digital presences above reproach?
  4. If we were judged by the same criteria we’re now considering using to judge others, would we be in our current positions? Would we even be employable?
  5. What kind of message do we want to send to current and prospective employees with respect to our regard for their privacy and our perspective on trust?
  6. Are we aware of the legal risks associated with social searches? Do we know what the boundaries are, by relevant state (and locality?), and do we have a system for staying within those lines? Are we prepared to address the potential negative consequences if someone concludes we’ve violated their rights in some way?

Concerns over negligent hiring and the desire to do appropriate due diligence before hiring someone are valid arguments for conducting social background checks, but employers shouldn’t let the relatively easy access to digital data lead them to act in ways that are not in their long-term best interests. Employers who are seriously concerned about their negligent hiring risks need to develop global, internally consistent, and legally defensible approaches to conducting background checks. Regardless of whether they choose to do them themselves manually or use software and/or services from a third party, employers should engage in the appropriate due diligence – including consulting internal or outside counsel – to ensure their processes are legally sound at federal, state and local levels.

And since they are a significant source of vulnerability, organizations must make sure that hiring managers are properly educated and trained about what they can and cannot do when sourcing, evaluating and deciding on candidates for specific jobs.

Conclusion

The fundamentals of candidate sourcing and background checking haven’t changed in the Digital Era, but the potential risks and rewards of social screening are game changers. Individuals who misrepresent their qualifications, say/do things that reflect poor judgment, and engage in dubious and illegal activity are much more likely to have their poor choices exposed when information about them is shared in cyberspace. Similarly, employers who have traditionally played fast and loose with the law when sourcing and screening candidates now have a greater chance of having their methods be revealed and challenged. Even employers who don’t intentionally thumb their noses at the law are vulnerable if they don’t develop defensible processes for leveraging the new technologies.

My best advice is to proceed with caution. As I indicated above, however, not everyone will agree with my conservative approach. I welcome other people’s insights, healthy debate, and questions. The more we talk about these issues, the faster we’ll figure out the best way to proceed.

Courtney Hunt, PhD is the principal of Renaissance Strategic Solutions (RSS), a consultancy that helps organizations increase their effectiveness through the design and implementation of innovative and leading-edge human capital and communication strategies and programs. RSS works with organizations of all sizes in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, in a wide range of industries. RSS is the founder and sponsor of the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community. Developing this community and meeting the needs of practitioners with respect to the strategic implications of social media is RSS’s primary focus. In addition to providing training on what social media is and how to use it, Courtney offers her expertise to clients interested in developing social media strategies and creating and implementing programs that leverage social media. She also helps organizations create and implement social media policies and provide training to ensure both managers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities. For more details on RSS and the SMinOrgs Community, go to http://renaissance-solutions.com and http://sminorgs.net.

Courtney has held several human resources and organizational development positions throughout her career, and has also worked in the communications, accounting and information technology fields. She has been a college professor for many years.

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