Socially Intelligent Background Checks?

Nick Fishman

A couple weeks ago, ERE’s Todd Raphael posted a story about a new technology that aggregates information on job candidates through social networking sites as part of their employment screening efforts.  See excerpt below.

Employee referrals and social media have begun to blend together. Could background checks and social media be next?

A new company called “Social Intelligence” says it’ll “track the worldwide network of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn, individual blogs, and thousands of other sources.”

Social Intelligence will, within 24-48 hours, produce a report on a job candidate using both automation as well as humans, the latter there to make sure there aren’t “false positives.” It says it will weed out “protected class” information it finds, such as race and religion. The company is also offering a version to monitor what existing employees are up to.

Nick Fishman, the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, doesn’t envision his or other similar companies going down the social-media background-checking road. “Not only are they not now, but I don’t foresee getting into it in the future,” he says. “It’s a hornet’s nest.” Awaiting employers in that nest, he says, are FCRA regulations and EEO rules.

When Todd and I spoke, I didn’t have the benefit of seeing what the interface would look like (see below). Having seen it, I’m even more entrenched in my position that employers should stay away from this. However, I think the concept could be extremely valuable for job seekers that want to conduct background checks on themselves.  With ratings such as “Demonstrating Potentially Violent Behavior” and “Poor Judgement”, this site might as well be a lawsuit in a box for employers.

There were a lot of comments generated on ERE as a result of this post (mainly from those warning against the use of this technology).  See a few samples below:

PCRecruiter’s Martin Snyder said, “I would not want to be that firm’s insurance company, at least until a few libel claims have been court-tested. I also would not want to use a selection or ranking method that has not been shown/tested to be free of disparate impact.”

Dr. Wendell Williams said, “I have to say I am not fond of this idea on so many levels. In my opinion, social networking as an effective hiring tool ranks right along with tea-leaves, astrology, and handwriting analysis. That said, anyone with sufficiently poor judgment to demonstrate inappropriate behavior in a public medium probably deserves what they get. To the best of my knowedge the role of a recruiter (corporate or otherwise) is identify people who are job-qualified…and, aside from the potential for making a perfect jerk out of yourself, I don’t see how social media does that.”

Charles Handler said, “I have to say that I feel this technology is a total invasion of privacy and good luck to anyone who uses it and expects that they are in any way impervious to lawsuits. It is a highly subjective measure that, when used as a selection tool, is in violation of best practices on so many levels. I can see the argument for it, I get it. Still, I cannot feel good about it. We are entitled to our privacy. I do feel people should be discreet about what they allow to be attached to their name on the web. But what about all those that keep things private, should they have an advantage over those who do not? I am not sure. At the end of the day, I could not recommend that my clients use this technology.”

Employers: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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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  • Name Rex Ryan

    Interesting points from the respected Dr.’s Williams and Handler. I’d like to offer a few of my own.

    Since when is it an invasion of privacy when an individual self-discloses (on a blog or tweet of their own) behaviour that casts them in a negative light?

    Let’s walk through a few potential examples (entirely ficiticious but useful for the purpose of illustration:

    – Bob Joyner of Placentia, CA operates an interesting blog on the subject of upskirt pics. He, on his blog, discusses how to construct a shoe camera that is nearly undetectable. He provides schematics, supply houses for the parts, and prices he paid. Bob also posts a few pics he took of unsuspecting girls and women taken at the local mall.

    – Clare and Jacque Ondas of Richmond, CA display pictures of heavily damaged SUV’s in the sales lot of an auto dealer in nearby Rollingwood CA. Along with the pictures is a long rant about the evils of fossil fuels, global warming, and drivers of SUV who deserve to be shot on sight for the damage they do to the environment. They also express admiration for the efforts of the Earth Liberation Front a group labeled as “eco-terrorist” by the FBI.

    – Tom Baynard of New Bedford, MA posts pic on his blog of his weekend activities with his “brothers” in the Aryan Brotherhood. He describes, among other things, how to manufacture home-made explosives using table sugar, powdered aluminum, and epoxy resin.

    In each of these ficiticious examples (but there are plenty of real ones of a similar nature), the individual disclosed much about themselves, their activities, attitudes, and propensities. No less important, they did it in a public forum (a publicly accessible blog or tweet).

    There is no presumption of privacy in a public area or forum.

    Hiring decisions should not be made solely on the basis of what one can discover about a prospective employee when searching the social media. However, it is useful to understand attitudes and actions of the prospective employee that they would not otherwise disclose.

    A good HR Manager is careful to use reliable sources of information when assessing the suitability of a candidate for a position, but a wise HR Manager discovers all that they can about a candidate and weighs all of the information when making that assessment. To pretend otherwise is just foolish.

  • Nick Fishman

    You’ve got a good point, but until the courts rule in favor of employers in cases such as these, this practice will continue to get those using them in a lot of hot water. That won’t happen until the veracity of the information found on these sites can be proven. It also won’t happen as long as the EEOC has something to say about it. I’m all for employers making an informed decision. I just don’t want them going beyond the bounds of the law in order to do so.

    Lastly, I’m not sure if you looked at the mock results provided by Social Intelligence above, but this type of evaluation might as well be called “an applicant’s road map to a successful lawsuit”.

  • Employee Background Check

    There are a few issues to consider here:

    -Is the product designed to assist with pre-employment screening?
    If so, you can certainly learn a great deal of information about an employee by “poking around” various social media sites and the search engines. Very few things on the Internet are considered “private”, and can certainly assist in making educated hiring decisions. However, most people still feel / believe that they can put information on the Internet that will remain private. Very little truth in this statement in the year 2010…

    -Is the product designed to provide on-the-job social media monitoring?
    If so, there are certainly reasons why employers would want to keep their employees’ views under wraps and suppressed while they are on the job. Productivity, while on the job, is more necessary than ever to maintain profitability in these tough economic times.

  • From my perspective, the risk is inherent in the process of conducting social background checks, regardless of whether a service like SocialIntelligence is used. Though they may facilitate the process, plenty of employers can – and ARE – conducting these searches manually. At least when a third party is used, recruiters and hiring managers can insulate themselves against certain risk factors (e.g., seeing protected class information that is not relevant to the hiring decision). And because using a third party invokes the FCRA, employers would have to get permission in advance and disclose that these checks were being conducted. They’d also have to share the information they discovered with candidates and give them a chance to respond.

    Recruiters, HR folks, and hiring managers are conducting social searches to source candidates as well, so the risks aren’t just inherent in the background checking process.

    I share my perspective on the issue of social screening in a recent blog post/white paper, which EmployeeScreenIQ has graciously shared on their University site: http://www.employeescreen.com/university/?p=3141. It can also be accessed here:

    It can be accessed here:

    Blog post – http://www.sminorgs.net/2010/10/social-screening-candidates-and-employers-beware.html

    White paper – http://www.slideshare.net/SMinOrgs/social-screening-candidates-and-employers-beware

    I plan to write a follow-up post and will include a link to this piece in it. It’s a great way to extend my ideas and the discussion.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, SMinOrgs Community

  • As promised in my previous comment, here is a link to my follow-up post entitled “Social Screening: The Expanded Discussion.”

    http://www.sminorgs.net/2010/10/social-screening-the-expanded-discussion.html

    I look forward to continuing this dialogue.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, SMinOrgs Community