Is Social Media Background Screening Worth the Risks?

Social media background screening can be more harmful than helpful. Learn more about the risks before Googling your potential hires.

Posted by Katie Yahnke in on February 13th, 2012

Over the past decade or so, employers have turned to social media as a rich source of information for employment screening.

But eventually, the risks associated with social media background screening started to emerge, and the growing awareness around privacy risks has led fewer companies to conduct social media background checks at all to conduct social media background checks at all.

Brainstorm less intrusive ways to achieve the same outcome.
Ideally, employers should weigh the pros and cons of screening an applicants’ social media accounts and brainstorm less intrusive ways to achieve the same outcome.

And, if a social media background screening is the best option, proceed with caution.

Learn how to effectively implement social media screening by watching the webinar, Can I Use That? Social Media and Background Screening.

Why do Employers Conduct Social Media Background Screening?

Employers typically have good intentions and screen for entirely professional reasons. They may be checking to confirm information or experience the applicant listed on their resume, and looking for discrepancies or other red flags.

They may also be judging whether the candidate is professional online, and whether they would fit in with the company culture. They’ll be checking to see if the applicant has revealed anything confidential or proprietary about their current place of work, or if they bad-mouth their employer online.

Questionable motives rightfully expose the employer to many legal risks
However, employers sometimes have questionable motives.

They may be trying to uncover information that answers a question they’re not legally allowed to ask.

These prohibited questions include things like marital status, political beliefs, health and religious background. An employer might be exposed to some of this information and, if it doesn’t fit their preferences, refuse to hire them.

Questionable motives rightfully bring about legal trouble. But, regardless of intent, there are risks associated with all social media background screenings.

Woman conducting a social media background screening of a job applicant

The Legal Implications of Social Media Screening

While social media screening can help you avoid bad hires, it can also expose the hiring officer to protected information about the employee, and once this line has been crossed it can be difficult to backtrack. If a company admittedly looks into an applicant’s social media account and then chooses to not hire them (for whatever reason), the unsuccessful applicant may file a complaint alleging that the company chose not to hire them for a discriminatory reason.

A company will have a hard time proving that information learned through the screening didn’t play a part in the hiring decision, especially a subconscious bias.

Keep in mind, too, that information collected through a social media check might be out-of-date. It may also be false. You can never be certain that you’re looking at the right person’s account.

Never, for any reason, should you request the applicant's login information to access their account.
And whatever you do, don’t “friend” the applicant on social media. Nor should you ever, for any reason, request the applicant’s login information to access their account.

Starbucks accused of violating the FCRA

Unsuccessful job applicants filed a class action lawsuit against Starbucks claiming the chain violated a required provision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

The provision in question states that job applicants must be given the chance to correct inaccurate information on their background check reports, including social media screens.


Use a Third-Party for Screening

Despite these risks, not conducting a social media background screen may end up being the bigger danger. Hiring an applicant who doesn’t use privacy settings and openly posts about their kleptomania, however, could end up costing you.

Thankfully, there are some ways of conducting a social media background check that protects the company from trouble.

“Social media is free, it’s ubiquitous, it’s easy to use, it’s not going away, and so companies should think about incorporating social media screening into their background screening policy. But they need to be very cautious about the way that they do it,” says Bill Glenn in his webinar.

In order to stay out of trouble and avoid discrimination lawsuits, companies should notify applicants they’re going to be subjected to this form of screening. Be open about your plans.

Employers should also consider using a third-party company to run background checks to ensure the information is inclusive without being discriminatory. Companies can indicate what kind of information they want to know about, and the third-party company will keep the other stuff to themselves.

For additional protection, employers should clarify their expectations with the third-party. Let them know the things you want to know and the things you don’t.

And once you finally choose a person for the position, document your reasons for not hiring the other candidates. If allegations of discriminatory rejection do come about, you’ll have documentation to prove otherwise.


Katie Yahnke
Katie Yahnke

Marketing Writer

Katie is the marketing writer at i-Sight. She writes on topics that range from fraud, corporate security and workplace investigations to corporate culture, ethics and compliance.