Should You Consider Social Media When Evaluating Job Candidates?

Employers who use social media to vet job candidates can learn valuable information. But there are also risks.

By Lin Grensing-Pophal June 9, 2023

You're a hiring manager in the process of screening a pool of applicants for a senior management position. You've narrowed your list down to five top candidates, but you want to limit yourself to three people for a third round of interviews. You're naturally nervous about making a poor choice—this new hire will have a largely public-facing role and a potentially huge impact on your company's brand and reputation.

So you decide to do a little scouting on social media to see if you can turn up anything interesting that might sway your decision one way or the other—and what you find gives you pause about one of your top picks. What should you do?

Know the Risks

It's commonplace for hiring managers to turn to social media to gain additional insight into prospective employees. In fact, in response to a recent Harris Poll, 60 percent of hiring managers say employers should screen all applicants' social media profiles, and 69 percent say looking at the social media profiles of job candidates is effective.

What you may find in a candidate's social media presence—for the most part—is fair game, says Jeff Williams, VP of enterprise and HR solutions at Paychex. "It's 2023, and what is posted on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter—and even Facebook for the nostalgic—is an accessible, noninvasive way of gaining insight on your candidate," he says. You're not stalking or "creeping," he adds. You're accessing information that anyone can see. 

But social media can be both a blessing and a curse when hiring, says Jennifer Preston, an HR consultant with Flex HR. While social media channels can yield ample benefits for HR professionals, recruiters and hiring managers for vetting job candidates, consulting such sources can also be risky—particularly when they are used to evaluate candidates based on their personal lives, opinions and what they choose to post and re-post. Preston says this information can create dangerous biases that can lead to legal risks. 

Marlene Allen Murray, a business litigation attorney at the law firm Fennemore Craig, says that an employer is not violating any laws by looking into an applicant's interests and values. "Social media posts can reveal a more honest view of an applicant than what they might share during an interview," she says.

However, Murray adds that there's a big caveat: Employers must not use the information they find on social media outlets "to discriminate against a candidate based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender or other protected classes." Employers, Murray says, "might be sued by a candidate if any unlawful prejudice is shown by the employer during the recruitment process," even if employers do not intentionally or explicitly use the information they find online.

"Peeking into someone's life creates a bias in the hiring decision, as the recruiter can now see or learn about someone's age, religion, political affiliation and beliefs, sexual orientation, and other protected and private classes of information," Preston says. "Passing on a candidate after knowing these things could pose legal challenges if a candidate knows a recruiter viewed certain profiles or stories." That's true even if the information is not directly related to the hiring decision. How can hiring managers minimize such risks? 

Stick to What’s Relevant 

An important first step when considering whether and how to incorporate social media searches into your recruitment and interviewing processes is to ask if your company has policies regarding what is permitted and what is not. If no policies exist, use general guidelines that can help you and your organization avoid potential risk.

"In cases where a company does not have policies regarding social media usage for hiring purposes, hiring managers should initiate discussions with human resources to establish clear guidelines and prevent potential pitfalls," says Emma Williams, a certified strengths and career coach and the chief research officer at HIGH5 Test, where she leads HR, coaching and research programs. If an organization is small enough that it doesn't have an HR department or professional on site, it can still follow some general principles.

Preston says appropriate uses of conducting a social media search on a job candidate include determining if the candidate is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job and evaluating whether the candidate's profile is consistent with their resume and the answers they give during the interview process.

Amy Laiker, the head of the New York City office of Tiger Recruitment, a boutique staffing agency, says that information about a job candidate discovered online through a general search of social media profiles can legitimately be used in considering candidates unless that information is related to a legally protected status such as race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

For example, says Laiker, legitimate red flags may go up if a candidate for a position that requires a high degree of confidentiality and discretion has profiles in which they share every minute detail of their daily life, or post images with their computer monitor in full view. Hiring managers may also take note if a candidate has a LinkedIn profile with a career history that materially differs from what they represented on their resume.

Jeff Williams says a good practice is for hiring managers to ask themselves what information is necessary to make a good decision and whether what they discover is relevant to their hiring choice. For example, 

  • Is your candidate who they say they are? That is, is the person you interviewed reflected in their social media accounts?
  • Does your candidate possess credentials relevant to the position you are seeking to fill (e.g., education levels, association memberships and awards received)? 
  • Does your candidate bash their former employers or colleagues? 
  • Does your candidate exhibit extreme behavior or poor judgment? 
  • Is your candidate engaged in any illegal behavior? 

Laiker says it's generally better to review a candidate's social media presence (which may contain a photo of the individual) only after an initial video or in-person interview. Doing so, says Laiker, can minimize the risk of an applicant saying they were rejected on the grounds of race, age, disability or other discrimination.

Tread Lightly

So you've followed your company's guidelines or generally accepted best practices related to evaluating a candidate's social media presence, and you've come across some red flags. What should you do?

First, pause and assess. Objectively consider the information you uncovered and its nature and relevance to the position you are hiring for. Does what you found impact the candidate's qualifications? Then consider context. Assess whether what you've found is a one-time occurrence or a consistent pattern of behavior that is relevant to the job and its requirements. Finally, document your findings. If you have an HR department or HR professional onsite, consult with them. If not, consult with your manager or another leader in the organization.

Keep in mind that some supposed "red flags" may stray into a protected area. While drunken party photos could legitimately be viewed as a "con" for hiring someone, basing hiring decisions on other types of images can be risky. "There are gray areas related to things like tattoos and hair styles that, it could be argued, might be related to religion, race, etc., so we would always advise to tread lightly," Laiker says.

The bottom line? "The essence of using social media to evaluate a candidate should be to determine if this person can perform the essential functions of the job," says Preston. "Is this person's candidacy accurate and consistent with their resume?" Asking that question when evaluating information learned during the hiring process is the most important step you can take in determining whether you've come across a true red flag or just irrelevant information.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.



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