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Social media screening for employment: invasive or insightful?

Social media screening for employment: invasive or insightful?

Technology has made checking the digital footprint of potential hires easier than ever. Just type in a name to any social media platform and – privacy settings permitting – you have a wealth of candidate information at your fingertips.

Research shows that 70% of companies use social media screening during the hiring process. 57% have rejected applicants because of what they found.

But just because you can use social media for screening doesn’t mean you should. There are lots of things to consider before you use social media sites to vet job candidates.

The ethics of social media screening

Thinking about the ethics of using social media screening for employment should be every recruiter’s first step.

Think about it, most social media networks are meant to be places to connect with the people in your life, not a place to build your career, (LinkedIn being the exception).

With that in mind, how would you feel if your boss or a potential employer started rooting around your Facebook posts from 2010? It might feel irrelevant to your current professional life. And it would probably feel pretty invasive.

Those are major factors to consider when thinking about screening candidates with social media. So before you even open Twitter, ask yourself a few questions first.

What are you looking for? 

You should go in with a clear idea of what you’re looking for and why. Every employer has red flags, but if you’re actively looking for skeletons in a candidate’s digital closet, you’re already starting out with the wrong intent.

Will it actually be useful to your process?

Sure, you can find out a lot of things about people based on their social media profiles. But most of those things probably won’t directly correlate with their ability to perform in the role you’re hiring for.

Plus, people from different backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences will all use social media differently. Your interpretation of what they share is likely to be prone to bias. And you aren’t going to get the same amount of information about every candidate.

Could a policy against social media screening be beneficial? 

Deciding to skip social media screening can lead to a more equitable screening process overall. And taking the stance that your company isn’t interested in digging into candidates’ digital histories can set you apart from other organizations.

Unsurprisingly, social media screening isn’t universally loved by candidates, even if they expect it might be happening behind closed doors.

To learn more about how you can improve your reputation for fair recruiting (in non-performative ways) read our blog about ethical employer branding.

Issues with social media screening for employment

If you’ve thought it through and still want to go ahead, it’s a good idea to make sure the way you screen social media is well planned and as fair as possible for everyone involved.

Let’s look at some of the main issues that pop up during social media screening and how to avoid them.

😍 Favoritism

Check a candidate’s profile on social media, and you may find someone who went to the same school as you or who shares your passion for sci-fi or baking. We’re inevitably drawn to people with whom we have something in common.

In terms of the hiring process, this can lead to favoritism, swaying you towards a candidate based on attributes and interests that are unrelated to the job.

⚖️ Legality

Different countries and states have different rules around social media screening of candidates.

Depending on your approach and location, it can actually be illegal. So you should do thorough research into the regulations in place where your business operates so you can be sure you’re staying on the right side of the law.

✱ Once you review a candidate’s profile, it’s assumed that you will be aware of a person’s “protected characteristics” – the law is particularly stringent on any kind of recruiting practices that discriminate based on these.

Protected characteristics include:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

Even if you plan to use that information to hire inclusively, it may lead to positive discrimination in favor of a candidate, which also has legal implications.

Other issues that may affect legality include consistency and fairness (which we’ll look at below) and consent from candidates.

🗯 One of the hallmarks of legal hiring practices is that they focus on behaviors within the work context. There should be a clear distinction between what people do during work and what they do outside of it.

Chad Van Iddekinge, University of Iowa, Stop Screening Job Candidates’ Social Media

🤔 Inconsistency of information

There are lots of avid social media users out there, but some people don’t update their profiles regularly. And others don’t use social media platforms at all. Ultimately, everyone has a different level of interaction.

This means the information you get from social media is inconsistent. It doesn’t provide a balanced lens through which to view candidates.

Unlike a resume and a cover letter, which have been written specifically for the role in question, social media profiles won’t always contain the information you’re looking for. And it’s hard to make piecemeal information part of a fair screening process.

The do’s and don’ts of social media screening

All these considerations aside, social media screening can be a valuable part of the recruitment process. However, if you’re venturing into the world of social media screening for the first time, here are the dos and don’ts you should try to stick to.

Do: Have a goal in mind

Aimlessly scrolling through a candidate’s social media feed is a waste of time. You should think about what you hope to gain by checking their profile.

You may want to see that their values align with those of your company or find out whether they are involved with their professional community. On a platform like LinkedIn, you can view their professional endorsements and cross-check their resume with online information.

On the flip side, it’s important to have a predetermined idea of what you don’t want to find. As well as red flags that rule out a candidate, consider what else would be detrimental to their application.

Having a clear goal in mind will help you be more efficient and prevent social media screening from turning into snooping.

Don’t: Screen without candidate consent

Before you go looking up prospective employees, you should make them aware of your screening process. Create a written policy that you can share with candidates, detailing what you will be searching for, who sees the results, and any privacy considerations.

Do: Take note of their privacy settings

It may be more helpful for you as a recruiter to find a candidate with lots of public social content — you get to learn a lot about them. However, private profiles can actually be a good thing.

When you hire someone, they become a representative of your brand. If they choose to keep their personal life private — through social media privacy settings — their online presence matters less. It becomes easier to ensure that they present only a professional front to both you and your clients.

But remember, keeping your social media profile private is a personal choice and should not be seen as a sign that a candidate has something to hide.

Don’t: Look at profiles before an interview

Don’t be tempted to look up candidates on social media before you’ve met them in person. You’ll inevitably form biases that will compromise the fairness of the recruitment process.

It’s best to wait until after an interview has taken place. That way, you’re supplementing your real-life experience rather than pre-empting it.  

Do: Be consistent

You have to treat all candidates equally. That means if you screen the social media account of one candidate, you should be doing the same for all candidates.

Also, be consistent in how you search. Use the same process and check the same platforms to avoid bias.

Failure to be consistent can lead to discrimination, and you may end up running afoul of the law. So you might want to set your process in stone by documenting it for all relevant staff members.

Don’t: Put too much weight on social media profiles

Social media screening can help you get a sense of the bigger picture of a candidate. But it’s not reliable enough to be a significant part of your recruitment assessment or decisions.

Social media profiles — and the assertions they include — can be faked. So, view everything with a healthy dose of skepticism and always follow up with references where appropriate.

Do: Watch out for red flags

You can’t expect candidates to be completely professional on non-professional social media platforms. Nor should you confuse your personal opinions with those of your company.

Nevertheless, you should still keep an eye out for any major red flags. Think illegal behavior, racist or abusive language, or anything else that completely goes against your company values.

Don’t: Make assumptions

Don’t assume that you can find out everything about a person from their social media profile.

Social media gives you a glimpse of a person — it doesn’t give you the context of a candidate’s life or experience. Even when there’s a lot of information available, profiles often aren’t a realistic representation of who a person truly is.

Do: Focus social media screening on the professional

Social media screening for employment should be about, well, employment.

You should primarily look for information related to a candidate’s professional life. The easiest way to do this is by sticking to professional social sites like LinkedIn, Medium, StackOverflow, and Behance.

Don’t: Send them friend requests

This — without a doubt — crosses the line between personal and professional.

You may be tempted to find out more about a candidate who has a private account. But by sending a friend request, you put prospective employees in a tricky situation.

They may feel obliged to accept the request even when they don’t want to. This ends up being an abuse of your power during the recruitment process.

How to create a fair candidate screening process

Fairness should lie at the heart of any candidate screening process, whether you’re using social media or otherwise. And only job-related skills and attributes should come into play. All bias should stay firmly out of the equation.

But human nature often gets in the way. We can’t help but make judgments and assumptions based upon our outlook and life experience.

So how do you eliminate that bias and create the level playing field that all candidates deserve?

You start by applying technological solutions to parts of the process where bias can creep in.

Using a platform like Headstart’s FairScreen, you can automate your screening process and assess candidates quickly and consistently, even when you’re dealing with a mountain of applications.

Companies who use Headstart spend 50% less time screening and have improved diversity hiring by up to 18% (which boosts a business’ bottom line), while reducing cost-per-hire.

Want to simplify your recruitment process and make it fairer too? Book a demo to see Headstart in action.

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