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POINT/COUNTERPOINT Should Employers Use Social Media to Screen Job Applicants?

HR Magazine asked two experts for their perspectives on this important question.

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Proceed cautiously with social media checks, but proceed.

About 77 percent of companies are using social networking sites to recruit candidates for specific jobs, according to a 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

In contrast, that same survey found that only 20 percent of 651 respondents use social networking websites, such as Facebook, to research job candidates.

When asked why, three-quarters said they were concerned with legal risks or discovering information about protected characteristics (e.g., age, race, gender, religious affiliation) when perusing candidates’ social media profiles. This is a legitimate concern.

However, ignoring social media entirely in the screening process is often an overreaction. The legal risk can be minimized, and the business benefits maximized. Some content posted on these platforms legitimately can be considered to the benefit or detriment of a candidate.

For example, you might learn from her blog posts that the candidate is a good writer, or her tweets might reveal that she is active in charitable causes. On the other hand, you may discover that the candidate has posted racist rants on Facebook.

While these are extreme cases, it is usually only at the extremes that social media is relevant.

How do we balance the legal risks?

In many ways, the “ban-the-box” laws and ordinances at the state and local level are a good model. They don’t ban employers from asking about criminal convictions. They require that employers wait to do so, at least until after the first interview. Some require that employers wait until after a conditional offer has been extended.

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. According to the 2013 SHRM survey, the organizations that use social media for screening do so after conducting a job interview but before extending a job offer.

The risk can be further minimized if HR, rather than a hiring manager, conducts the background check. HR knows what it can and cannot consider.

And, the risk levels vary depending on which social media platforms are reviewed. Facebook posts tend to be more private (i.e., access to content is restricted to selected “friends”) than posts on LinkedIn or Twitter. So an employer can elect to look only at the last two.

For other steps that employers can take to minimize risk, see “The Law and Social Media in Hiring” in the September 2014 issue of HR Magazine.

The bottom line is that avoiding legal risk is not possible, and avoiding social media in the hiring process may cost you in the long run. We need to manage risk, not avoid it.

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner with Duane Morris LLP, Philadelphia, and a contributing editor of HR Magazine.

Joyce LeMay


Screening social media is unethical and possibly illegal.

Would you follow a job applicant home and peek into her front window? Would you eavesdrop on a candidate who is socializing with friends at a bar? Of course not.

Using social media to screen applicants is equivalent to these scenarios.

Many employers don’t train managers in how to use social networking websites to screen applicants in an ethical and legal manner. So, recruiters and hiring managers poke and pry into posts that were meant for the candidates’ friends.

More than half of hiring managers found information on social media that caused them not to hire a candidate, according to a 2014 CareerBuilder survey. However, many of the reasons cited for not hiring the individual were not job-related.

In a national survey I conducted last year, 31 percent of the 212 respondents (about half were in HR) said they believed that using social media for screening applicants is unethical.

That’s because recruiters may learn about job applicants’ age, sex, religion, national origin and disabilities, which may open employers up to discrimination lawsuits.

Many also were concerned about the accuracy of the information they find. Someone could have hacked into the applicant’s Facebook account and posted false statements.

And pictures can easily be taken out of context. For instance, if there is a photo of an applicant smiling and holding up a glass of wine, a recruiter could assume he or she has a drinking problem.

However, the glass might have contained grape juice, or the occasion may have been a rare celebratory moment. The picture doesn’t tell the entire story.

These concerns are probably why only 20 percent of employers use social media to screen applicants, according to a 2013 SHRM survey.

In handling information, the SHRM Code of Ethics calls on HR professionals to “consider and protect the rights of individuals, especially in the acquisition and dissemination of information while ensuring truthful communications and facilitating informed decision-making.”

The challenge with social media lies with the acquisition and truthfulness of the information. Did we dig to find it? How do we know that what we saw or read was true?

Based on the answers to these two questions, how do we use the information to make a hiring decision that is fair and just?

These are real challenges to consider. As HR professionals, we are called on to use ethical and legal best practices and to not take the easy way out by simply searching social networking sites.

So, if you wouldn’t peek into the applicant’s window at home, why look into his or her postings on social media?

It’s tempting, but not the best ethical choice, and clearly it can increase the legal risks.

Joyce LeMay, SPHR, is an associate professor of HR, Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn.and a member of SHRM’s special expertise panel on ethics, corporate social responsibility and sustainability.


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