The term "background check" is often a confusing catch-all.
In many cases, when employers say that they run background checks on their employees, they mean that they're checking the criminal records of the people they hire, or plan to hire. Background checks can also include verification checks (of work experience, education, and professional certifications), reference checks, driving history checks, civil history checks, credit checks, skill tests, and drug tests. In short, no two employers have the same background check process.
In the age of social media, the concept of a "background check" has become muddier still. The "social media background check" - in which hiring managers browse the online accounts of candidates in search of red flags - has become increasingly popular in recent years. But are these social media background checks a smart tactic for employers? Or would your business be better off sticking with more traditional methods for employee screening?
Understanding the Benefits and Drawbacks of Social Media Background Checks
Certainly, there are positive elements to social media background checks - there's a reason that so many employers have felt inclined to check out the Facebook and Twitter feeds of prospective hires.
However, there are also sticky legality issues that can make social media vetting risky.
Consider these pros and cons before implementing any form of social media background check in your pre-employment screening process.
Pro: You learn more about who your candidate really is
When people post on Facebook or Twitter, they're often letting their guard down and being themselves completely.
As helpful as an interview can be for finding the right candidate, few people feel free to truly be themselves in such a formal and high-pressure environment - an interview is like a performance, and every candidate you speak to is going to be trying their hardest to put a strong foot forward.
Sometimes, looking at online profiles can tell you more about a person than you can possibly learn in an interview - from what they are passionate about to how they treat other people. This information is rarely essential to the hiring process, but it can be empowering to feel like you understand your candidates on a personal level.
Con: You might end up wasting time
Do you have a 'John Smith' in your applicant pool? Good luck finding his Facebook profile.
One of the biggest problems with social media background checks is that it's an imperfect science. Finding people on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn can be a challenge if you don't share any connections or mutual friends. And even if you do find your candidate, privacy settings on social platforms can make it impossible to view their posts.
Social media background checks can end up being a lot of work for potentially no return.
Pro: Social media checks are great for spotting a few specific red flags
Does your candidate have a bad habit of ranting about her boss and colleagues online? Does an applicant who seemed friendly in the interview crack racist or sexist jokes on Twitter?
The information revealed by a social media background check is rarely essential to the hiring process, but in some cases, it can help you spot major red flags about a person's character.
Other types of background checks won't reveal these flaws - except for employment verifications or reference checks in some cases - but social media might offer a loud-and-clear tell.
Someone who badmouths a company or spouts off derogatory remarks online is not a good ambassador for your brand and is probably someone you want to pass over when you are hiring.
Con: You could end up on shaky legal ground
While some people are guarded about their digital privacy, others like to display everything about themselves online. That includes information that employers should not - and cannot - consider while making hiring decisions.
For example, a candidate might list his age, race, religion, or sexual orientation as part of a Facebook profile. Alternatively, an applicant might proudly defend her political beliefs on Twitter.
Consciously or subconsciously, learning this information about an applicant may color how you feel about them. Hiring managers are at full liberty to have their own opinions about sensitive political, religious, and lifestyle matters, however, the second those opinions influence a hiring decision, they become discrimination.
As they shine a bright light on an applicant's sensitive personal information, social media background checks can make bias and discrimination more difficult to avoid - thereby putting your business on potentially shaky legal ground
Conclusion: How to Handle Background Checks in the Age of Social Media
These are some of the biggest arguments for and against social media background checks. If you're thinking about perusing the social profiles of your top candidates, you need to consider both arguments before deciding.
However, there are a few strategies you should employ no matter which decision you make.
First, keep running other types of background checks regardless of your position on social media background checks. Social media can tell you more about a person - from general likes and dislikes to character details - but it can't replace traditional and trusted background check sources. Using criminal screenings, verification checks, and other types of vetting remains important even if you decide to put social media background checks in the mix.
Second, if you ever decide to use a candidate's social media profile for hiring purposes - whether to find contact information or to run a full-blown social media background examination - have someone other than the hiring manager do the work.
Even looking at a Facebook Page to find a phone number can unintentionally reveal too much information - as such, it's a good idea to have a person uninvolved with the hiring manager look through the applicant's social accounts and prepare a report of relevant or potentially relevant information. This person can act as a filter, keeping information that might create a bias out of the hands of the hiring manager.
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