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How Employers Use Social Media To Screen Applicants (And Why They Should Change Their Tactics)


by Michael Klazema, lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com

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In the fall of 2014, TIME Money highlighted a study — conducted by the recruiting company Jobvite — to assess how employers use social media as a recruiting tool. According to the study, 93 percent of surveyed hiring managers will look at an applicant’s social media profile as part of the hiring decision process. Furthermore, more than half of all surveyed employers have “reconsidered a candidate” based on social media findings. Needless to say, social media background checks have become a common thing in the employment industry, and job searchers need to be wary of what they post online to avoid missing out on job opportunities.

But job applicants aren’t the only ones who need to be careful about how they use social media during their job search. Indeed, employers also need to be cautious when deciding to take social profiles into consideration while making hiring decisions.

An applicant’s Facebook page, for instance, can reveal information that an employer is not supposed to know. Personal facts — like a person’s age, religion, or sexual orientation — can introduce bias or prejudice into the hiring process, and can make it impossible for an employer to make an objective hiring decision.

That’s not to say hiring managers need to stop using social media altogether during the job screening process. On the contrary, there are ways in which a social media background check can be extremely helpful in revealing someone’s true colors or character. What it does mean, though, is that many employers should alter their social media background check tactics in order to avoid learning discriminatory information about an applicant. With that in mind, we took a look at what most employers already do with their social media background checks — and at the changes that can help to avoid clashes with the EEOC.

Typical Social Media Background Check Tactics for Employers.

The Jobvite study highlighted last autumn by TIME didn’t only prove that a high percentage of employees use social media to make hiring decisions, but it also highlighted how they use social media. According to the study, the first thing that employers are looking for on social media — or at least the thing that most often forces a reconsideration of an applicant — is any sort of reference to illegal drugs or substances. This isn’t surprising: many employers run drug tests of their workers to ensure a substance-free workplace, so why would they hire someone who brags about drug use on Facebook? The answer? They wouldn’t.

Other items that hiring managers are looking for include profanity, references to firearms, or excessive mentions of alcohol (or photos that depict drinking). Posts with poor spelling or grammar are also often a turn off, since the majority of jobs these days require at least a bit of writing. And of course, derogatory comments about bosses or co-workers — past or present — can immediately kill an applicant’s chances of getting hired to a new job.

The typical system for social media background checks is more or less what you would think it would be. A hiring manager uses platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook to either find new candidates or review existing applicants. Where the social check occurs in the employee screening process can vary. Sometimes, it’s at the beginning, before any applicants are even invited in for an interview. Other times, it’s done after the interview, as a means of determining whether or not an applicant was being genuine in an interview. Since the interview is something of a performance for many applicants, an employer is naturally curious about how their applicants behave in real life. Social media provides a window through which that question can often be answered.

Necessary Changes in Tactics.

Now that we know how most employers conduct their social media background checks, we can begin to understand why a tactical shift or two might be necessary to avoid possible bias or discrimination.

The biggest issue with these social checks isn’t that employers are running them, or even the factors that might cause those employers to reconsider an applicant. It’s perfectly understandable that an employer would want to know how their applicants behave in real life, with their guards down. And if an applicant is bragging about drug use online, or trashing his or her employer, then those are signs that they are not an ideal hire. In a vacuum, this information is essential for an employer to know, because it helps them to avoid hiring someone that they would likely have to fire within the first year. This in turn saves money, time, and resources, avoids excess stress or frustration, and boosts company productivity and efficiency.

The issue, then, is that this relevant hiring information that is out there on social profiles does not exist in a vacuum. On the contrary, it is just a piece of a larger whole, one fragment of information contained in a profile thatis also comprised of countless other pieces of information. And often, those other pieces of information are things that an employer is not supposed to know — like the aforementioned age, religion, or sexual orientation.

So how can an employer get what they need out of a social media background check without impairing his or her ability to make an objective, non-discriminatory hiring decision? The best practice is for the employer or hiring manager — the person actually in charge of interview applicants and making a hiring decision — to not be the person in charge of the social media background check. Instead, that duty can fall to someone else in the company — a human resources manager, perhaps. This person can examine applicant social profiles, highlighting red flags like mentions of drugs, pictures depicting binge drinking, or profane comments and compiling them into a short report. Not included in the report will be any information that can bring about illegal employment discrimination.


Social media can be a decent way to learn how an applicant behaves in his or her everyday life. This information can in turn help an employer learn whether or not that person is a good hire. But while these types of checks have become quite common in recent years, they are still seen as questionable by the EEOC. By taking the steps highlighted above, your company should be able to take advantage of the benefits of social checks without introducing bias and discrimination into the hiring process.

Of course, a company looking to avoid any chance of compliancy complaint from the EEOC would do best to avoid using Facebook for hiring purposes. Even then, though, social media can still be a useful hiring tool. For instance, job searchers use LinkedIn to update their resumes in real time, and applicants fully expect and encourage employers to access and use that information. In other words, social media background checks are like anything else: useful if done with caution, and dangerous if abused or misused.


michael klazema

Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor forBackgroundchecks.com.



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