Talent acquisition and recruitment leaders on social media screening: ‘We are wary’

At first, social media screening of job candidates sounds like a great idea. At face value, it should reduce the likelihood of a poor hire and lower the risk of brand damage caused by one of your employees posting something to social media that doesn’t align with your company culture or values. In an era when organisations are doing their utmost to stamp out sexism, racism and other negative behaviour, filtering out candidates who display those traits online makes a whole lot of sense.

But the deeper you dig, the more it seems social media screening is one of those topics fraught with hidden dangers. From legal issues to ethical concerns, unconscious bias to unsophisticated AI, the practice of screening is a minefield that needs to be navigated with utmost care.

This month, CVCheck’s Enterprise Manager, Andy Grimmett, presented to talent acquisition industry thought leaders at The Recruitment Events Co.’s RL100 luncheons in Melbourne and Sydney. Menuccia Tassone, CVCheck’s Head of Marketing and Customer Engagement, sat in on the session and uncovered some of the biggest questions and discussion points in relation to social media screening.

Does social media screening require any training?

One of the biggest concerns industry experts have when it comes to social media screening is, who conducts social media screening in the hiring process?

“It might be a junior HR manager who scrolls through someone’s Facebook feed and makes a spot decision,” says Menuccia. The biggest questions here are: “Are they trained or qualified to do so? What sort of personal biases are they bringing to that decision? How would they justify that decision in terms of aligning it to their company’s policy?”

During his presentation, Andy explained that the risk mitigation strategies around social media could be broken down into three levels of control within structured/unstructured procedures:

  • Low: An untrained professional would check social media profiles and form judgement.
  • Medium: A trained professional checks candidates’ social media profiles for specific pre-defined behaviours or criteria related to the job requirements.
  • High: Automated technology (AI), which uses algorithms, trawls different platforms for undesirable comments/traits/behaviours and delivers a standardised report back to hiring managers and recruiters.

How deep can recruiters dive into applicants’ social media profiles?

Most talent acquisition leaders agree that simply diving into someone’s social media feed to “see what you find” is not recommended.

Social screening should follow a structured, documented process where social platforms are searched for specific criteria that is aligned to your company’s policy or values. This might include searching for evidence of bigotry, violence, sexism, crime or illicit drug use. A social media check may also look for indicators of job performance such as poor spelling and grammar, or information that suggests the candidate lied about their qualifications or experience, however most industry experts agreed this is not a reliable indictor.

Companies should be aware of the protected attributes and no-go zones when interviewing someone for a job. Information, such as a candidate’s race, sexual orientation or pregnancy status should not be base of any judgement.

And although political opinion is also a protected attribute, this, as well as freedom of speech, could be more complex. For example, some organisations lawfully require staff to stay away from communicating their own political views and anything that might be against internal company policy.

In a recent case, the Australian high court unanimously upheld a decision by the immigration department to sack a former Department of Home Affairs employee for anonymous social media posts criticising the government’s immigration policy. The Department says the employee breached their code of conduct which requires public servants to be “apolitical at all times”.

Is social screening AI sophisticated enough?

As advanced as AI is becoming, it often fails to understand context. “AI is getting smarter every day, but when it comes to very human traits like humour and irony, it can still get things wrong,” says Menuccia.

One talent acquisition leader at the RL100 event pointed out that he feels strongly about child abuse, violence, and racism in football, and often posts about these issues on the internet. Using AI to screen his social media may pick up some of the language he uses to express his opinions, but could fail to understand the context, therefore raising red flags for violent or racist language. Would that make him unemployable?

The solution here would require a human to context-check the flags raised by the AI, enabling an employer to either validate or dismiss the information. But human recruiters, particularly in very large organisations, simply don’t have the time to sift through hundreds of pages of flagged posts per candidate.  

At the RL100 events talent acquisition leaders suggested, ideally the social screening AI would be programmed to detect conflict between a candidate’s online activity and company values, looking for consistent patterns of behaviour and discounting anything that is irrelevant or a protected attribute. At least while the technology is relatively new, humans should perform a sense check before a decision is made.

Can social media screening be limitless in time?

Another concern, raised by an in-house recruitment expert, was around recency. Particularly relevant for younger generations who have grown up with social media, many candidates will have an online social history that spans decades.

“People change over time,” says Menuccia. “As a leader rightly pointed out, a young person may have been a very active and very outspoken student on a political issue, or even made inappropriate jokes online at the age of 18, but 12 years later they’ve matured and grown to become a model worker. This type of social screening should therefore be limited to a relevant date range. Social profiles evolve over time.”

What should you consider for effective social media screening?

Because we’re still in the early days of social media screening, there isn’t yet a reliable body of research to answer key questions such as: Does social media screening lead to better hiring? What are its legal and ethical pitfalls? Does it result in fewer firings for online posts that breach a company’s values? Does it reduce incidences of brand damage? Does it reduce negative behaviour in the workplace such as sexism and bigotry?

In conclusion, recruitment and talent acquisition functions should understand that formalised social media screening is in its early days and should be approached and implemented with due care.

Regardless, informal social media screening is commonplace in the majority of workplaces. Formalising the practice can help employers avoid its hidden dangers and this can be done through:

  1. The development of a social media policy that lists hiring criteria that clearly link back to your company values.
  2. The provision of training for any staff doing the checks.
  3. The outsourcing of social media screening to third-party professionals.


CVCheck is a leading provider of background screning services in Australia and New Zealand, conducting over 300,000 checks every year for businesses, government organisations, and individuals. To learn more about our team and business, sign up to our blog today.

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