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The Pros and Cons to Strictly Doing a Background Check on Social Media

The idea of a "social media background check" has become commonplace in recent years. From parents warning kids about what they post online (lest future employers or college admissions boards find it) to young professionals making their social profiles private, everyone knows that hiring managers might go snooping around online to learn more about their applicants. In a 2014 survey, the job posting site CareerBuilder.com found that 43 percent of employers were using social media to research job candidates. What employers find on social networking sites has an impact, too: of that 43 percent, more than half said that they chose not to hire a candidate because of something they saw on social media.

In other words, if your company is considering doing background checks via social media, you aren't alone. Before you implement a social networking background check as your primary or sole means of screening applicants, consider the following pros and cons.

Pro: They show who applicants are in their real, day-to-day lives. One of the issues that many employers have when it comes to interviewing applicants is that, often, candidates won't put forth their truest selves in job interviews or on resumes. A job interview is a performance where an applicant will seek to emphasize the most agreeable parts of their personality while suppressing the bits that might turn off or offend. A resume, meanwhile, is nothing but a list of experience—a document capable of teaching you about a person's work history, but not about their persona or temperament.

Social media background checks are unique in that they let you see how an applicant behaves in his or her "natural habitat." A person who posts thoughtful statuses or interacts with friends in a friendly, playful fashion could be seen as an intelligent person with a personality that will work well in the workplace. A person who posts offensive, profane, or derogatory content or bad-mouths bosses or colleagues on social media, meanwhile, isn't someone you are going to want to hire. Social media background checks can illuminate these differences more brightly than just about any other pre-employment screening method available.

Con: They don't uncover criminal history. This point may not be a problem if you are using social media background checks to supplement other parts of your background check policy. If you are thinking about doing only social checks, though, you won't be doing your due diligence—simply because you won't uncover an applicant's criminal history. In rare cases, individuals will admit to illegal activity on Facebook or post pictures of them breaking the law (engaging in drug use, for instance). For the most part, though, you will have to run a formal criminal history check to determine if your applicant has a record of convictions that may render him or her unfit to perform the job at hand.

Pro: They are cheap and easy. What could be easier than searching a candidate on Facebook or LinkedIn, reviewing their online presence, and making a hiring decision right then and there? Two of the major draws to social media background checks is that they don't cost anything and that they can be performed instantly, from any computer or mobile device. Even companies who do social media background checks as an afterthought rather than as a primary focus have the option to do so, simply because of the ease and accessibility.

Con: They cannot be consistent across the board. One of the most important factors in designing a background check policy for your company is coming up with something that is consistent and objective across the board, for all candidates. If you are screening five people for the same job and you subject one candidate to a specific kind of background check, you must also subject the other applicants to that background check. With a social media screening model, it's virtually impossible to have that kind of consistency.

Everyone has a different web presence. One person might have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, be active on numerous online forums, and have their own blog. Another person might have a Facebook that they never update or use. This drastic difference in online activity levels is naturally slanted against the person who is extremely active online. By simple law of averages, someone who posts more frequently on the web is more likely to post something that could be viewed as objectionable. Someone who is largely inactive online wouldn't have any social media red flags, but might still not be a good fit for your company.

The inconsistency of social media presences, in other words, makes it difficult to compare applicants fairly. Add in fake accounts, the difficulty of finding the right social profiles for applicants with common names, and the fact that many people safeguard their profiles with privacy settings, and social media background checks become even spottier.

Con: They can reveal information that hiring managers are not supposed to know. This point is the biggest con of social media background checks, and it's something that your company needs to consider if you are considering looking your candidates up online. There is certain information that, by law, you are not allowed to ask about on applications or in interviews. This information—which includes but is not limited to sexual orientation, race, religion, political affiliation, and gender identification—is personal and private and is left out of job application and screening materials because it can lead to bias and discrimination. Often, however, individuals will share some or all of this information freely and proudly for their friends to see on Facebook. In checking a candidate's online profiles, therefore, you may be compromising your own ability to judge that person and their abilities with objective fairness.

The main benefit of social media background checks—of seeing who people really are, outside of the interview room—is the reason many employers open this can of worms at all. If your business is going to look into candidates on social media, though, here are two pieces of advice you should follow. First of all, don't strictly do your background checks on social media. In order to do your due diligence, other screenings are required or recommended, from criminal history checks to driving record checks to credit history checks. Secondly, if you are going to do social media checks at all, have someone outside of the hiring team do the search and review the profiles. That person can then report back to the hiring manager about any relevant findings (offensive tweets, inappropriate photos, etc.) while leaving the more discriminatory information out of the picture.

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