How Employers Do Facebook “Background Checks” (and Why You Shouldn’t)

While it’s certainly a good practice for all of us to be discerning in what we choose to share on Facebook—versus what we choose to keep to ourselves—it’s interesting that these warnings assume that all employers are looking at social profiles as part of the job screening process. Indeed, there is a perception about the employment industry these days that so-called “social media background checks” are now a key tool for employers trying to make tough hiring decisions. In the minds of many, social media checks have joined resume reviews, interviews, and criminal history checks as a standard part of all hiring policies.

Now, say you are an entrepreneur or business owner, and you are looking to hire new employees for the first time. You need to design a screening process that will filter out the weak applicants, eliminate unsavory individuals, and find you a perfect candidate. And because you’ve heard so much about social media checks over the years, you decide that you might want to implement them as one step of your hiring process.

How Employers Do Facebook "Background Checks" (and Why You Shouldn't)
How Employers Do Facebook “Background Checks” (and Why You Shouldn’t)

How Social Media Checks Work

After you begin considering doing social media checks of your applicants, your first question will probably be about how to go about doing them.

It should be a clue to you that no background check company offers a service for social media checks. These firms will do virtually any kind of background check that is legal and fair, from searching criminal records, to checking financial history, all the way to verifying educational credentials and checking references. They will not do social media checks, though. If you want to do these checks, you are on your own.

Most employers that do social media background checks don’t do them until after an interview. They use resumes and job applications to choose the candidates they are actually interested in. The pool is then narrowed with interviews. After that, a social check may be used to see if any top prospects have any obvious online red flags. In other words, these social media checks aren’t really a key component to the employee screening process. Instead, they are a way to see if an applicant is indeed the person they presented themselves as in the interview.

All told, this means that most hiring managers will only ever be doing social background checks of a few applicants. How these checks are done, then, is more or less what you would expect: an employer goes onto Facebook; searches the name of an applicant; finds that person’s profile based on name, photo, location information, etc.; and then browses the profile for potential red flags.

3 Reasons Why You Should Skip The Social Media Check

The concept of a social check sounds pretty simple, right? You narrow down your applicant pool, pick a few people you’d seriously consider hiring, and then see if there are any inappropriate photos or statuses on their Facebook profile. But while there can certainly be benefits from seeing how an applicant behaves “in the real world,” the risks and cons of social checks outweigh the pros. Here are the three primary reasons why you should skip the social media background check in your employment screening process.

1. They reveal information that employers are not supposed to know

When you draft a job application for your company, there are a number of rules to which you must adhere. You are not allowed to ask, for instance, about an applicant’s age or marital status. In some parts of the country, where ban-the-box legislation is on the books, you aren’t even allowed to ask about criminal history. These rules are there to prevent discrimination or bias in hiring.

When you check an applicant’s social profile, you are almost certainly going to learn about some of these pieces of information that no employer is supposed to have. Facebook profiles disclose a lot of personal information: age, race, native language, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, marital status, whether or not the applicant has children, whether the applicant smokes or drinks, etc. Learning this information can make it difficult for employers to make unbiased hiring decisions.

2. They are frowned upon by the EEOC

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission frowns upon social media background checks for the reasons laid out above: they increase the chances of bias and discrimination entering into the hiring process. And while social media checks aren’t illegal themselves—at least not yet—they can lead employers to breaking EEOC laws without even realizing it.

For example, let’s say an employer looks at the Facebook page of a female applicant. The action of simply pulling up the webpage is legal. While browsing the profile, though, the hiring manager notices that the woman has just announced that she is pregnant. Due to concerns about maternity leave, the employer decides not to hire the woman and goes with an equally qualified male applicant for the job. The employer has thus committed an employment discrimination crime, and can be sued by both the EEOC and the female applicant they unfairly rejected.

3. They can be a big waste of time

The last reason to skip social checks is that, plain and simple, they can lead to a huge waste of time and a substantial loss of productivity. When an employer sits down to look at applicant profiles on Facebook, there are plenty of reasons that the endeavor could end up being fruitless. Perhaps the applicant doesn’t have a Facebook profile, or has implemented extensive privacy settings to keep non-friends from looking at their page. Or maybe the person goes by a different name on Facebook than the one they wrote down on their application. Either way, there are better uses of time than chasing phantoms on a social network.

Instead, use those hours to find a reputable background check firm for criminal screenings, or even to interview a few extra applicants You’ll get more out of your time, and won’t have to worry about accidentally breaking any hiring laws.

Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for a background check company. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.

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