Is it Time for Employers to Consider Social Media Background Checks?

Nick Fishman

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Last weekend, Jason Morris and I had the pleasure of joining the folks over at TalentCulture on #TChat to discuss the pros and cons of using social media sites as part of their employment background screening efforts. Check out the primer here.

As a follow up to our conversation, host Kevin W. Grossman wrote an excellent take on whether using social media employment background checks was fair game and we wanted to give our readers a chance to review it in it’s entirety (see below).

The Hot Potatoes Of Social Screening- By Kevin W. Grossman

That’s when I saw the photo — a full view of a man’s naked back severely cut open from multiple slashes of some kind of large knife. Before even knowing the context (and not really caring at first), I cringed and rolled my eyes. I’ve seen a lot of inappropriate images online since I’ve been playing and working in online networks, usually the more social of the bunch like Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, even Instagram (of course, since that’s where you share photos, and my appropriate share is plentiful).

This one, though, was really offensive, although I didn’t point that out to my friend who shared it, nor did I comment on it at all. I had just been scanning my news feed like I usually do and – smack – there be the gore. The context, which I did take 30 seconds to digest, was a story about a police officer that had been cut up by an assailant (not sure if it was true or not and didn’t take the time to fact check). The slant of the piece was why officers should be allowed to make a split-second decision to shoot an assailant if it’s a life-and-death situation.

My father was an officer and police detective for over 30 years, and he always told me that he’d rather face a “bad guy or gal” holding a gun than wielding a knife, because at least with the gun you knew where it was pointing. One night when I was in high school, my father and mother were leaving one of my football games when he confronted a “high” kid threatening a school official with a knife. My father was off duty and carrying his gun (like he always did), but chose instead to hit the knife-wielder with his camera bag over and over again once the kid attacked. My father was stabbed multiple times and the kid was arrested. Years later the kid-now-adult died in prison from multiple stab wounds.

But that’s not the point of my story.

No, where I’m going with all this is the offensive photo I found in my news feed. And, because of the industry I’m in and the perspective I usually take, I imagined if I were an employer looking at public candidate profiles across social and professional networks as part of my pre-employment screening process, finding these horrible hot potatoes along the way.

The reality is that I don’t have to imagine, since I have sourced, screened and hired multiple positions and team members over the years in my various incarnations, and that includes going online to see what I can find. I mean, where’s usually the first place most sourcers, recruiters, HR folks and hiring managers go today when screening a candidate? We Google them and more, right? And we search for them via social media to see what’s up in the virtual world — even if we don’t admit it (or admit they based hiring decisions on what they find).

The fact is, we can easily find professional or personal information on a job candidate with just a few clicks, and something we talked about in depth on the TalentCulture #TChat Show. However, alongside the ease come real and rising legal risks that employers must be aware of when researching candidates on a social network or through a search engine.

There are certainly both the risks and rewards of screening job candidates online, but understanding the legal considerations facing companies that turn to the Internet to check out job candidates due to privacy, discrimination and accuracy is critical. According to my friends from EmployeeScreenIQ and their The Unvarnished Truth: 2014 Top Trends in Employment Background Checks report (surveyed over 600 individuals representing a wide range of companies):

A substantial portion of respondents (38 percent) search online media for information about their candidates as part of the hiring process. It’s not an insignificant portion, but the vast majority of employers forego this activity. Eighty percent of those who check online sites turn to LinkedIn for information.

 Plus, whether or not employers consider Google and other online social and professional network searches “background checks,” the FTC has ruled that some social media data aggregators are, in fact, subject to the same laws as traditional background checks.

Heck, if my friend was a prospective candidate of mine, I would’ve dropped him/her like a hot potato, without question or context. Of course I wouldn’t have documented that decision, since I’m not going to go on the record that I made a potential hiring decision based on what I found online, but nearly 50 percent of those above who said they screen socially drop because of inappropriate photos, and nearly 50 percent are screening via Facebook.

That all said, whether becoming or handling social hot potatoes:

1.     Employees should be much more self-aware of what they share online and why. They should always be vigilant, since they’re always perpetual candidates regardless of role or classification, and no matter how happily employed. Human beings are horrible decision-makers on the average, so making bad judgments of posting graphic photos online because you’re trying to make a point when a future or current employer (maybe one of the nearly 40 percent that won’t like it), or even potential investors if you’re launching your own business, doesn’t matter when they care about or for your point, then you’re forgotten as fast as you posted your point. No longer in consideration. Good luck to you.

2.    Employers should be much more self-aware of their screening processes and who’s screening whom, what, when and where. They should also always be vigilant, since they’re perpetual suitors regardless of the roles or classifications they’re “hiring” for. People are their greatest asset, and their greatest liability. Transparency I believe in, but there’s a reason for privacy and discrimination laws. There are just too many hot potatoes of social screening, so do yourself a favor and underscore your screening process with legitimate pre-employment screening practices that are EEOC, OFCCP and FCRA compliant.

Those acronym hot potatoes will get your company burned otherwise, most likely audited and fined. Then neither of us is in consideration any longer (employee or employer).

Good luck to you. Maybe start using an oven mitt.

About the Author: Kevin W. Grossman co-founded and co-hosts the highly popular weeklyTalentCulture #TChat Show with Meghan M. Biro. He’s also currently the Product Marketing Director for Total Talent Acquisition products at PeopleFluent.

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Nick Fishman
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Nick Fishman

Nick Fishman is the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, a leading, global employment background screening provider, and serves as the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. He pioneered the creation of EmployeeScreen University, the #1 educational resource on employment background checks for human resources, security and risk management professionals. A recognized industry expert, Nick is a frequent author, presenter and contributor to the news media. Nick is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio and Texas.
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