Talent acquisition and social media screening: the pros and cons

A 2018 survey by CareerBuilder found that 70% of employers used social networking sites to research job candidates, with a further 7% intending to start. Of those recruiters who conducted research on social platforms, well over half (57%) found content that caused them to reconsider a candidate’s suitability for the role.

While this increasingly popular practice can provide companies with additional information, stalking applicants on social media comes with a number of hidden dangers.

Why do employers check online social profiles?

There’s no doubt that searching through a candidate’s social profiles is an effective way to supplement traditional background screening processes. Social media screening can reveal positive information such as:    

  • Expertise – Information that supports the candidate’s professional qualifications and experience for the job.
  • Cultural fit – The candidate’s level of professionalism and ability to fit in with the company’s.
  • Soft skills – A candidate’s profile may indicate soft skills relevant to the job, such as creativity and ability to communicate well.

Adversely, CareerBuilder found that in trawling through a candidate’s social media profiles, employers occasionally find information that can have a negative impact on that person’s application, including:

  • Information that suggests the candidate has lied about their qualifications or experience.    
  • Inappropriate photos, videos or text-based posts; or discriminatory comments relating to race, gender, religion, politics and so on.
  • Poor communication skills.

What are the hidden dangers of social media screening?

Undeniably, there is a goldmine of data to be gleaned from a candidate’s online activity, but social media screening comes with its own set of concerns.

1. Online behaviour can be misleading

Often, social media users present different versions of themselves depending on the platform. There are not many people who behave the same way on LinkedIn as they do on Facebook, for example. Unfortunately, employers rarely limit their social screening to professional networking sites.

Take written communication skills as an example. While a candidate may demonstrate excellent written communication on LinkedIn mirroring the quality of writing in their cover letter, a glance at that candidate’s Twitter feed may reveal sloppy writing, poor grammar and spelling mistakes – this Twitter language may actually be intentional and contextual to its use.

Professionalism too is hard to gauge based on more casual platforms, such as Facebook or Instagram, where a candidate’s behaviour may be more familiar and chatty, rather than business-like and professional. Business networking sites such as LinkedIn, Xing and Meetup may give you a better overview of your candidate’s soft skills.

Recruiters should always remember the skills, level of professionalism and expertise that candidates demonstrated through the job application process.

2. It can be a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen

As every HR professional knows, there are questions that shouldn’t be asked during the hiring process. Asking about race, sexual orientation, pregnancy, political opinions, religion and other protected attributes in an interview or in a reference check is discriminatory behaviour.

The problem with searching through a candidate’s social media accounts is that it can lead the employer to unintentionally learn things about some of these protected attributes. It’s not only unethical to make decisions based on this information, but also illegal.

While there are plenty of examples of employees being fired for something they’ve posted online, there don’t appear to be many documented cases of employers being sued by unsuccessful candidates for social media screening – yet. Legal experts and other commentators agree that social media screening is a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen. 

3. The information gathered can feed unconscious bias

Unintentionally, discovering protected attributes about a candidate via social media introduces human bias into the hiring process. Even if someone reviewing a Facebook account, for example, intends to look only for evidence supporting a job application, and ignore other factors such as politics or sexual orientation, this information will still be learned. The problem with unconscious bias is its tendency to insidiously impact our decision-making, whether we like it or not.

How to conduct compliant social media screening?

Regardless of its challenges, it seems using social media to review potential hires is here to stay.

If you are one of the growing number of companies employing the practice, here are four tips to ensure you are not falling victim to legal issues, bias or misleading information.

  1. Consider documenting a step-by-step social media screening policy for recruiters ensuring it addresses the points above. This may include informing the candidate of your intention to review their online profile.
  2. Have a non-decision maker screen the profiles and look only for a list of information pertinent to the role provided by the recruiter.
  3. Take all information gleaned with a grain of salt – consider the context of your candidate’s posts and the nature of the platform on which they were posted.
  4. Outsource your pre-employment screening through a third party who ensures you remove protected attributes from any final report.

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