The Ethics of Social Media Screening

When you’re looking to onboard a new hire, you need to be confident that they reflect your company’s values. Hiring a candidate with a history of unprofessional conduct, hateful speech, or online bullying could jeopardize your business’s reputation—or create an unsafe and toxic work environment for your other employees.

Social media screenings are an important step in the hiring process. By screening a job applicant’s publicly available social media profiles, a social media screening can verify that your candidate has no history of unsuitable online conduct.

However, it’s vital that your company conduct social media screenings in a legal and ethical manner. Your candidates have a right to their own privacy, and any background screenings you pursue will need to respect these rights.

The following is a quick guide to social media screenings—and how your business can legally and ethically use them to make informed hiring decisions.

What is a social media screening?

A social media screening is the process of reviewing a job applicant’s social media profiles as part of a larger pre-employment or corporate due diligence background check.

Typically, prospective employers are looking for instances of immoral or unprofessional online conduct, including hate speech, bullying, threats of violence, use of obscene language, and posts about illicit substance use.

Employers may also use social media screenings more broadly to help determine whether job candidates are a good fit for the company and its values. Reviewing a candidate’s presence on social media platforms can provide a useful peek into their values, aspirations, and previous work—all things that a candidate may not have been completely transparent about in their application or interview.

Are social media screenings legal?

When done correctly, social media screenings are perfectly legal.

However, it’s extremely important to make sure you pursue them in a way that’s compliant with U.S. privacy and hiring laws. Otherwise, your business could be liable for violating equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws and other consumer protections.

Many states now have laws preventing employers (or prospective employers) from asking for the user names and passwords of employee social media accounts. In addition, you’ll need to obtain consent from job applicants prior to conducting any third-party background check. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), this restriction applies even to publicly posted information, including an applicant’s online presence on social media sites.

If information found in a social media screening affects one of your hiring decisions, there are also additional requirements when reporting your decision to the candidate.

The FCRA requires that you provide job applicants with the results of their background check, along with a “Summary of Rights”—this allows the job candidate the opportunity to make a correction if there are mistakes in the background report (such as the wrong social media profile being reviewed) or to take action if they believe their rights have been violated during the hiring process.

Businesses that use social media background checks will also need to be careful not to violate equal employment opportunity laws. Under a number of state and federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers are forbidden from making hiring decisions on the basis of certain protected characteristics such as race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and disability.

Since an applicant’s online social media presence is likely to contain at least some of this information, using a first-party social media screening—a screening conducted directly by hiring managers—can lead to possession of sensitive information and lead to accusations of hiring discrimination.

For this reason, it’s best to use a third-party screening company when conducting a social media screening. An experienced background screening company can check an applicant’s online profiles for objectionable content while redacting a candidate’s protected personal information.

Are social media screenings ethical?

Employers also need to consider a larger question: even if screenings are conducted in accordance with the law, are they an ethical way of assessing a potential employee?

This question is a bit harder to answer—but again, it mostly comes down to how you conduct your screenings and what you choose to do with the information obtained.

The key to ethical social media background checks is consent: applicants should know that you plan to conduct a screening, know what kind of information you’re screening for and how it may affect your hiring decision, and offer written consent to a social media screening.

As long as the candidate has agreed to the screening and fully understands what it entails, reviewing publicly available information on social media accounts is a perfectly ethical way to get to know a candidate and protect your business from bad hires.

That said, you should establish consistent social media screening standards before you begin to use social media checks as a part of your hiring process. If you aren’t applying clear, consistent standards when you assess a candidate’s online presence, you could expose your business to accusations of bias or discrimination.

Tips for ethical and compliant social media screenings

The following guidelines can help your business implement social media background checks in a legal and ethical manner—so you can protect your business without violating applicants’ right to privacy.

Use a third-party screening solution

As mentioned above, reviewing an applicant’s social media profiles yourself can expose you to legal repercussions. The laws governing background screenings can be complex, and an experienced background screening company will know how to conduct screenings while complying with relevant laws.

Using a third-party screening solution also helps to ensure consistency in screening methods and protects your business from accusations of discrimination or bias.

Obtain consent before pursuing a screening

It’s absolutely vital to obtain written consent from an applicant prior to conducting a social media screening. The applicant should also be informed as to what they’re being screened for and how the results of the screening will be used.

If the screening produces results that affect your hiring decision, you’ll need to provide your applicant with a copy of the screening results and give them the chance to correct any mistakes or clarify if the wrong accounts (such as accounts by a different person with the same name) have been reviewed.

Keep context in mind when considering results

It’s worth remembering that your potential hires have a right to their own private lives—and that their social media profiles may not always be the best reflection of who they are in the workplace.

Occasional posts that feature a candidate drinking on the weekend or a social media presence that’s mostly filled with personal hobbies don’t necessarily reflect badly on a candidate’s job performance or their ability to fulfill the requirements of the position.

Social media screenings can offer valuable insights into a potential hire—but you’ll want to use common sense in evaluating their social media presence and keep in mind that a person’s online social life isn’t always the best representation of their qualifications or work ethic.

Contact us for more information

If you have further questions about social media screenings or any other kind of pre-employment background check, contact us. With years of experience and a wide range of customizable screening solutions, EagleScreen can help your business mitigate risk and hire with confidence.

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