Social Media Screening a Risky Game of Russian Roulette?

Using social media to recruit candidates is the channel of choice for employers but using online platforms for background screening prospective employees is laced with risks that could spell corporate suicide.
Social media platforms replaced classified ads in newspapers years ago and were partially responsible for the demise of small town newspapers by providing a convenient and cost-free way to advertise and respond to job vacancies.

Social Media for Sourcing Candidates

Surveys of the recruitment channels used by employers worldwide revealed that about 30 per cent of job ads are posted on dedicated career websites and about 20 per cent through posts on job boards, which would include social media platforms. Both of these online recruitment channels were by far the most favoured compared to recruitment agencies, which scored a meagre 4 per cent.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are considered by 58% of employers in North America as the best source of candidates.
However, relying on online social networks for information has potentially disastrous results.

The Dangers of Social Profiling

Avid social media users and sharers put themselves at risk when they reveal personal information which could be used for nefarious purposes. About 40% of social media users in the US have experienced some kind of profile hacking.
A staggering 78% of burglars in the US have reportedly used social networks and Google Street-view to select their victims with 54% of them attempting to break into houses believed to be empty when people posted their geo-locations.
Obviously most employers don’t intend any harm, nor are they seeking victims, if they go through social media profiles of candidates but they are in fact putting themselves at risk of potential legal disputes due to privacy and discrimination laws.
The 1974 US Privacy Act states that: “No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains”.
Simply put, an individual must give their consent for a third party to ‘disclose’ any personal information about that individual. ‘Disclosure’ in this case refers to any form of communication; written, oral, electronic or mechanical.

Social Media Screening


Photo by Tobias Dziuba

There’s a stark difference between using social media platforms to recruit candidates compared screening candidates by going through their social media profiles.

Recruiting with Social Media

Posting a recruitment ad on a social media platform to target a certain demographic is acceptable and for many organizations is successful. No one is breaking any laws.

Screening with Social Media

On the other hand, employers making decisions to hire or not hire based on information obtained from social profiles are stepping into the realm of data protection and privacy laws. 
The social-professional platform LinkedIn is predominantly used to post online portfolios and to for professionals to network. Other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are used more for purely social interaction often totally unrelated to work or professional qualifications.
Aside from the illegality of justifying hiring decisions made from information garnered from someone’s Facebook profile, social media platforms just aren’t a reliable source of information.

What’s in a Social Media Profile?

A lot of misleading disinformation is one way you could describe what’s to be found on social media profiles. An individual’s personal likes, hobbies and interests are totally unrelated to their professional qualifications.
Social media profiles are snippets of images and information which just as well be completely fabricated and regarded as nothing more than fairy tales.
An individual’s profile might be a poster wall for a dedicated thrash metal fan or appear to promote a distasteful lifestyle or beliefs.
These are all aspects of a person that are open to interpretation in the eyes of an outsider so they shouldn’t be used to assess a candidate’s competence in a work environment.

Discrimination Risk

Employers making decisions from using social media profiles to conduct background screening risk breaking anti-discrimination laws.
A candidate could sue a potential employer if they believed the employer treated them differently after finding out personal information about the candidate.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), making recruitment decisions based on information such as age, race, national origin, gender, religion, disability and any other genetic could be grounds for a discrimination case.

Identity Theft

Online identity theft is commonplace, and it’s quite easy to do, so an employer or background screening agency using social media profiles to do background checks could be easily misled with an identity that’s been stolen or hijacked for the purposes of discrediting the individual that the profile is said to represent.
To put this into perspective, LinkedIn was forced to take action over 20 million fake accounts on its platform in 2019.

Background Screening Rules

Companies in the US providing background screening reports to employers must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which states that the companies must ensure the accuracy of information used, whether from social networks or criminal and public records.
Additionally, the companies have to provide copies of reports and must have a process in place to handle any disputes. An employer which doesn’t hire or promote a candidate because of information from any source must inform the candidate of the reasons for that decision.
Essentially, candidates have the right to dispute the accuracy and completeness of any information used by an employer to make a hiring or firing decision, so employers using information have a legal obligation to ensure the information is processed appropriately and disposed of properly within a limited period of time.
Attempting to gain access to an individual’s social media account would be an illegal invasion of privacy. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 26 states specifically restrict employers from asking for usernames or passwords to go through the personal online accounts of candidates or employees.
Frankly, the most cost effective and safest way for a firm to screen candidates or existing employees is through a professional third-party background screening specialist.
Their aim is to be impartial and present unbiased information so the employer can make informed decisions based on clear and accurate information obtained through official channels such as:

  • License and educational checks to validate candidate credentials
  • Reference interviews with former employers and supervisors.
  • Health and drug screening to assess a candidate’s fitness for work according to industry regulations.