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How to Use Social Media for Applicant Screening

Many employers use social media in various ways to screen applicants. Employers might look to corroborate information provided by the candidate, to review writing samples, or to learn more about a candidate's personal attributes such as how he or she speaks about current employer, what organizations the candidate follows, or whether he or she brags about the use of illegal substances. As long as the information found is not used in to unlawfully discriminate, social media screening can give employers additional insight about the candidate. However, because social media can also provide an employer with information that is not job-related and that could potentially influence hiring decisions, employers should proceed with caution.

Employers should make the decision to use social media for applicant screening with the guidance of an attorney and before screening has begun. This guide assumes the employer has already made the decision to proceed with this type of screening and understands the legal risks. In all cases, social media screening of applicants should only be one facet of the selection process.

To effectively use social media for applicant screening, HR professionals should:

  1. Create a social media screening policy.
  2. Prepare screening questions for the position.
  3. Conduct the screening.
  4. Prepare and provide a report to the hiring manager.
  5. Retain the documentation.

Step 1: Create a Social Media Screening Policy

Before screening begins, organizations should develop a social media screening policy demonstrating that legal and consistent practices are used. Employers must always base hiring decisions on information that is nondiscriminatory and a valid predictor of job performance, and the social media screening policy should take care to reflect that. The policy should include the following details.

Who will conduct the screening? It is recommended that employers have someone in the HR department or a third-party expert in employment law conduct the screening to help avoid discrimination claims. Screeners should be knowledgeable about the position's required knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors so they can screen for job-related information.

When during the application process will the screening be conducted? To avoid discrimination claims, it may be prudent to conduct social media screenings later in the interview process, perhaps along with the reference or other background checks. Legally protected categories like race, ethnicity, age, family relationships and medical conditions may be unveiled through social media screening, so conducting screenings early in the application process could make employers more vulnerable to discrimination charges. In all cases, consistency in when organizations conduct the screenings should be spelled out and strictly adhered to.

Which positions will be screened? Will the employer screen for all positions, or only for those of a certain level, department or division? Some positions may be more public-facing and require a more professional social media presence; some larger employers may only have time to screen for management positions and above; or the best policy for the organization may be to screen for all positions. Employers must determine their needs and available resources, and develop their policy to meet those requirements.

How will the search be conducted? Employers must determine if they will review any public information found on a general internet search or if they will limit the search to specific sites. Again, organizations should review their available resources (including time to conduct screenings) when making this determination, because open-ended searches can take considerable time, and they would need to conduct them for all candidates identified for screening. HR must make it clear that job candidates will not be asked to provide their passwords because doing so may violate state and federal law.

Although Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn are the most popular sites employers use when screening, many social media sites tend to have lower participation rates among Latino and African Americans than are in the general population, so using only those sites could affect diversity. To ameliorate the impact, employers should consider widening searches to include professional and association sites and online newspapers and magazines.

How will the results will be presented, and to whom? Organizations must be clear that they will use only job-related information found on social media sites in making an employment decision. Employers must determine who will receive a report of that information and what will be reported. Some examples include an indication that information was or was not corroborated, writing samples and additional job-related information discovered. Employers should determine if they will include documentation, such as screen shots, in the report.

Step 2: Prepare Screening Questions for the Position

As with any type of background check, before employers screen individual candidates, they should develop a list of job-related questions or categories for each position. In doing so, employers help ensure that all applicants are being screened fairly and keep the screener on track. This list might include verification of education, work history, credentials, memberships or other criteria important to the position. Writing samples may be needed, or social media presence may be assessed for public relations positions. Work reference information may also be sought because certain sites allow clients and co-workers to make comments on an individual's own page. Whichever questions are used, developing this list keeps the search limited to job-related information that the employer may use in the hiring decision.

Step 3: Conduct the Screening

With the list of screening questions in hand, the screener should begin searching either the specific sites indicated in the employer's policy or conduct an open search on an internet browser. In either case, the screener may need to create an account on some sites to view any candidate information. For example, the screener may already be a LinkedIn and Facebook user, but may prefer to conduct the screening under a company-based user ID. If that is the case, the screener should create social media accounts under the organization's name or under a more specific name (like "HR ABC Company"). This will allow the screener to search for a job candidate's social media activity without having to use the screener's personal account.

Once logged into these specific sites, the screener can search for the candidate's name and see the information the candidate has chosen to make public, such as work history and education. Some sites may also offer additional business tools, for a fee, that may be useful, depending on the organization's needs.

To screen a job candidate on LinkedIn, for example, the screener can simply go to LinkedIn and search the candidate using his or her first and last name. Once the screener has determined that he or she has identified the right "Sue Smith," by screening out the Sue Smiths not in the geographic area or industry, for example, the screener clicks on the candidate's name to read the profile. In terms of verifying current and previous positions, professional work background and education, all of this information is created and submitted by the account holder, and this should be kept in mind. It is possible, though, to view endorsements and skills contributed by others and even professional recommendations.

General internet searches can result in useful information about a candidate, but to get the most out of the searches, the screener should know some basic Boolean search techniques, some of which are discussed here. To narrow a search to a particular site using Google, for example, users can preface a URL with "site:" to limit search results to that domain. For example, if job candidate Jane Doe claims on her resume to host a WordPress blog, the screener can verify that by going to Google and searching Jane Doe Similarly, if Jane Doe says she was quoted in The Wall Street Journal about the changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act, a search using Jane Doe site: should retrieve the article and her comments.

Candidates' social media activities can be found in blog posts, social media profile updates, conference attendee lists, press releases, media mentions, company documents and various other posts, so open searches can help employers find the information they need. Additionally, if two candidates are being considered for the same position, it may be necessary to widen the search options to assess likely job performance. For example, the screener may want to search for online activities that can demonstrate each candidate's writing abilities. Candidate 1 may host a blog on WordPress; candidate 2 may tend to use LinkedIn. The screener should note in the documentation where  the relevant information was found.

In general, screeners should document all search methods used and sites visited. If the screener includes a specific site in the report to the hiring decision-maker, the screener should cite the URL and perhaps even include a screen shot. For example, if a job candidate's X feed includes posts that raise red flags, the screener should capture those posts in screen shots and include them in the report. Similarly, if a social media site returns favorable information—a high level of participation in a professional association, for example—that information and the URL should be included in the report.

Step 4: Prepare and Provide a Report to the Hiring Manager

As with background checks, the screener should provide social media activity reports only to those detailed in the organization's screening policy (likely the hiring manager and HR), and the reports should focus on job-related results only. The screener may be able to verify, for example, that the job candidate's work history is consistent online with what his or her resume contains, that the candidate earned specific certifications, and that the candidate meets certain job-related criteria—like having excellent written communication skills, for example. Reports should not include any information that could be unlawfully discriminatory.

In some cases, social media screenings may reveal very little information about a job candidate. This may be because the job candidate may not participate in social media. Unless the organization is hiring for a social media or public relations type of position, this lack of activity should not be held against the candidate.

In every report, the screener should reiterate that social media screening is only one part of the job selection process and should not weigh more than the interview, employment history and other factors when deciding whom to hire.

Step 5: Retain the Documentation

To protect the organization from discrimination charges, the person conducting the social media screening should document when the screening took place during the hiring process, the steps taken during the process (e.g., where the screener looked), the employment-related information provided to the hiring decision-maker and any employment decisions that were made as a result of the search. The employer should retain all hiring records—including the social media screening report—for one year (two years for federal contractors). After that period, the hiring records, including the social media report, can be shredded following existing organizational protocols.


Additional Resources

Screening Candidates' Social Media May Lead to TMI, Discrimination Claims

Viewpoint: Conduct Careful Background Checks for Racism 




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