Are Employers Using Social Media Background Checks to Discriminate?

Nick Fishman

An interesting and important article appeared today in the Wall Street Journal that looked at a topic we’ve discussed frequently – the intersection of social media and employers’ screening and hiring practices. The article, Bosses May Use Social Media to Discriminate Against Job Seekers,” highlights a new Carnegie Mellon University study that suggests employers are using social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn as a pre-screening tool to discriminate against minorities.  Our own research –  EmployeeScreenIQ’s 2013 Background Screening Trends Survey Report – was also cited finding that more than a third of employers use social media to perform background checks on candidates some of the time (only 7% indicated they used it all the time) to demonstrate that there are a number of companies who do screen using social media sites.

I’m not convinced that the Carnegie Mellon study can conclusively make discrimination claims because there is no way to say with absolute certainty that the employers who received the resumes in turn visited the social sites.  It’s a presumption based on what we know of some employers’ practices. There is something to be said for those that unintentionally use personal bias but it would be difficult to prove that these particular hiring managers went to the social media sites.

The article points out that, “Most employers say they use social networks to find evidence of unprofessional behavior, such as complaints about previous employers or discussion of drug use. Many employment consultants advise job hunters not to share such obviously problematic details on social media.”  I agree that this encompasses what the majority of employers who conduct social media searches utilize this tool for.

Pre-Screening Tool v. Employment Background Check

It is important to note that our study asked whether social media sites were used to conduct background checks, as opposed to the Carnegie Mellon study which dealt with social media as a pre-screening tool.  While the difference seems subtle, there is a tremendous distinction in practice.  Using it as a pre-screening tool means that it is being used to decide who is going to be considered for an interview.  Using it as a background screening tool often means that the person has already interviewed and gotten deep into the hiring process.  In this case, protected class information such as race, age, ethnicity, etc. would already have been known.

What can employers that use social media to conduct employment background checks do to prevent the allegation or occurrence of discrimination?

  • Create a social media policy which clearly indicates what information is being sought.
  • Designate a trained project owner responsible for conducting the search.
  • The person conducting the search should simply mark any information which might prevent employment and forward only that information to a designated decision-maker.
  • The designated decision maker won’t see any of the protected class information; just the information that would be of concern thereby eliminating the possibility of discrimination

Those interested in learning more about employers’ use of social media background checks should check out our latest white paper 7 Do’s & Don’ts of Background Screening with Social Media.

Social Media Screening

Watch the Wall Street Journal’s video from the article:

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.
Nick Fishman
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