HR Weeds Out Applicants Through Public Social Searches

By Roy Maurer Jan 19, 2016
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More than a third (36 percent) of employers rejected a job candidate in 2015 because of information such as illegal activity or discrepancies with applications found on public social media sites or through an online search, according to survey results released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Overall, 43 percent of HR professionals said they use public social media or online searches to screen job candidates, up from 33 percent in 2013. Forty-four percent agreed that a job candidate’s public social media profile can provide information about work-related performance.

“Unlike traditional hiring tools such as interviews and contacting past employers, social media sites hold out the promise of revealing the ‘real’ job applicant,” said Les Rosen, an attorney and the CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a background screening firm based in the San Francisco area.

Respondents said they conducted online screens to gain more information about an applicant (61 percent) or to verify information from an applicant’s resume and cover letter (50 percent). Forty-one percent of employers said candidates occasionally include links to their social networking profiles on their resumes. That’s up from 19 percent in 2011.

Two out of 5 organizations have a policy—whether formal or informal—on screening job candidates using public social media or online search: 22 percent allow the practice and 19 percent prohibit it. Of the 59 percent of respondents without a social media screening policy, 21 percent said they plan to implement one in the next 12 months. Thirty-nine percent allow candidates to explain any concerning information found, such as illegal activity or discrepancies with submitted applications. Another 14 percent allow candidates to explain concerning information only after the decision to hire has been made.

“The problem is that sophisticated job applicants know employers are looking at their online presence, so applicants are increasingly putting up security protection and more importantly, creating marketing pages they are hoping employers will find in order to extoll their own virtue,” Rosen said. “In many ways a social media search of a candidate is like an IQ test—if a candidate is so dense that they say harmful things on a public website where they identify themselves, they are probably not the best candidate. Social media continues to be very valuable to find passive candidates for recruiters, but much less valuable to screen candidates before hiring.”

LinkedIn and Facebook remain the top sites used for screening at 93 percent and 63 percent, respectively, but professional and association sites have become as commonly searched as Twitter, used by 29 percent of respondents.

Of organizations that screen candidates using social media or online search, 28 percent do so before the interview and 29 percent wait until after the interview. Thirty-six percent said it varies by job level.

Take Care When Screening

The most common reasons for not using social media to screen job candidates are legal risks, relevancy and accuracy of information, and privacy concerns, according to respondents.

Legal risks are a legitimate concern, said Jonathan Segal, a partner at Duane Morris, based in Philadelphia, and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, which provides training for human resource professionals. These risks include employers making hiring decisions based on protected characteristics of job candidates, which can be discovered online.

“All hiring decisions need to be based upon information that is nondiscriminatory and is a valid predictor for job performance,” Rosen said. “When using the Internet for employment screening, employers could be accused of discrimination by disregarding online profiles of job candidates who are members of protected classes based on prohibited criteria under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

However, “ignoring social media entirely in the screening process is often an overreaction,” Segal said. “Some content posted on these platforms legitimately can be considered to the benefit or detriment of a candidate.”

Segal said ban-the-box laws, which require that employers wait until later in the hiring process before asking about criminal convictions, is a good model for balancing risk.

“Employers can minimize the legal risks and maximize the business benefits of social media if the screening is part of the reference or background check that is made before extending an offer or after extending a conditional offer. After an applicant has been interviewed, his or her membership in many protected groups is already known. So, checking his or her LinkedIn profile or Twitter handle is not likely to reveal much more than HR already knows.”

Risk can be further minimized depending on which social media platforms are reviewed. “Facebook posts tend to be more private than posts on LinkedIn or Twitter. So an employer can elect to look only at the last two,” Segal said.

Another issue is whether information found on the Internet about job applicants is even credible or authentic, Rosen said.

“Employers should keep in mind that the idea behind social network sites is friends talking to friends, and users of these sites have been known to embellish. Employers may have to consider whether what a person says on their site is true and, if true, whether it would be a valid predictor of job performance or whether it would be employment-related at all.”

The later in the process HR looks at social media the more protection they have since there is less likely to be an inference that someone did not even get an interview due to an employer discovering something about an applicant that is potentially discriminatory, Rosen explained. “By unveiling the applicant too early, an employer may learn about an applicant’s race, creed, color, nationality, age, marital status, health issues and so forth. No matter what, employers and recruiters need to ensure they are using documented and objective processes and procedures, keeping metrics—and in no case should the final decision-maker be exposed to raw, unfiltered social media data,” he added.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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