Use Social Media for Recruiting, Screening, and Background Checks?

How to consider and make use of information available on social network sites

2 women looking at social media on a laptop
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Online social media sites provide significant opportunities for employers who want to recruit potential employees. But, they also present significant challenges if employers want to use them for screening and background checks. Checking employee job references is even more problematic in online social media.

Employers are all over the board about searching online for information about prospective employees because of potential discrimination and negligent hiring charges. Thus far, the practice of social media screening and background checks by employers is minimal. But, the percentage of employers checking online information will grow as using online social media becomes further entrenched in the fabric of social networking and job searching.

Are you prepared with policies and procedures to integrate the information you find online in your screening and background check practices? *Rob Pickell, senior vice president of customer solutions at HireRight, shares his knowledge about online social media recruiting, screening, and background checks.

How are employers currently using social media as a recruitment tool?

Employers are using social media as a valuable tool for sourcing and recruiting prospective candidates. Social networking allows organizations to build their employment brand and awareness, expand the breadth and depth of their network, target top talent in a large range of skill sets, and improve the effectiveness of their recruiting efforts.

What percentage of employers use social media to find potential employees?

According to a recent research report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 76% of companies said that they do use or are planning to use social media sites for recruiting. More than half of the employers responding said that social networking sites are an efficient way to recruit candidates.

To screen potential employees?

Not much information is available today regarding employer use of social media specifically for the purposes of background checks. But, based on discussions with our own customers, we believe that the percentage of employers using social media for background checks is small. This is due to the potential pitfalls these sites can create in terms of exposing employers to protected class information. Information that could potentially trigger a claim of discrimination can often be found within social networking profiles.

How employers can use LinkedIn for recruiting employees

LinkedIn is the web version of business networking. We've all been told by someone that networking is the best way to find a new job, and you can look at LinkedIn as the online equivalent to in-person business networking. For job seekers, LinkedIn provides a free and easy way to network with large numbers of people they know and the people that those people know. LinkedIn also allows job seekers to follow the news and job postings for their targeted employers.

For employers, LinkedIn provides a wealth of information about the qualifications of job seekers and can help employers leverage their own networks (and those of their employees) to find potential candidates for job openings. Employers can create company profiles and set up feeds of information (including new job postings) for those who would like to follow them. LinkedIn also offers employers a fee-based solution that allows them to more quickly and easily find potential job candidates that best match the qualifications of the job they want to fill.

Employers can use Facebook for recruiting

Like LinkedIn, Facebook enables employers to create a presence that reflects their employment brand, find potential candidates, and post jobs. In addition, it enables great opportunities for interaction with candidates and allows organizations to create a community. Facebook was originally geared towards personal communication but has morphed into a tool that is used more and more for business.

Let's cover all of the big three social media sites. How are employers using Twitter as a recruiting tool?

For employers, Twitter is primarily effective at increasing exposure and communicating with groups of individuals who wish to follow the organization. It can also be used to advertise jobs. Some companies have job channels and/or individual recruiters who operate dedicated Twitter accounts for communicating with interested job candidates.

How do you balance the advantages of using social media for recruitment with the risks of using it in the screening process?

Social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are valuable resources for identifying qualified candidates and communicating with and recruiting applicants to fill positions. The risk employers need to understand, when using social media as part of their recruiting process, occurs when the process moves from sourcing to screening candidates.

Social media is an ideal way to find and recruit candidates. But, the difficulty occurs when information provided on social media sites is used to screen or explicitly eliminate a candidate from consideration.

This elimination, when based on data found through social media content, opens the employer to the potential risks of liability, discrimination claims, and non-compliance with regulations.

While there is little direct legal precedent around this issue at this point, it's likely that legislation and case law will become clearer in the near future. In the meantime, the risks are evident and few companies want to be the focus of any legal action. Given this point, it's important that organizations have policies in place that protect against discriminatory practices and are explicit in how social media information can be used by employees in the hiring process.

Given these risks, how are employers currently using social media in their employee screening and background check processes?

Generally, the social media screening and background check practices by employers fall into three basic categories:

  • Not accessing social media sites at all for any purpose in hiring.
  • Employing social media for the sourcing of candidates, but not using it for screening or background checks.
  • Using social media in all areas of hiring.

Employers need to consult with their legal counsel prior to developing an approach to the use of social media in hiring. Especially if the employer intends to use social media as part of the screening and background checking process.

What are the potential legal and regulatory risks employers must keep in mind as they use social media for recruitment or for screening and background checks of employees?

While I am not an attorney and cannot provide legal advice, generally speaking, there are at least two categories of competing legal concerns:

  • Discrimination: Most employers have stringent employment policies that prevent their recruiters and hiring managers from learning potentially discriminatory information about candidates. Visiting a person's social media sites, however, clearly creates the opportunity to view large amounts of information contrary to these non-discriminatory practices. Individuals on their personal social media sites may disclose information about marital status, children, religion, politics, disabilities and even social interests that, by law, must be ignored in a hiring decision. If a recruiter has accessed this data, it is difficult to prove that they were not influenced by it in their hiring decision.
  • Negligent hiring: Employers must consider the potential risk of a negligent hiring or negligent retention lawsuit related to social networking profile information. While I am not aware that it has happened yet, it is possible that if a workplace violence incident occurred when derogatory information was available on the perpetrator's public social networking profile, that could have predicted the later behavior, the employer may be held liable for negligence in not using this readily available information when they made the hiring decision. Although this situation has yet to play out, the key factors are not unlike those of past cases (where publicly available information was not considered) that have resulted in significant jury awards.

    What is the relative value of checking social media profiles for information about potential employees vs. traditional screening methods?

    Interestingly, the value of conducting social media screening and background checks is likely small for most companies. HireRight conducted a survey in which over 5,000 applicants were reviewed randomly via their social media sites. Of these, just over half had either no public information available or no information that could clearly be associated with the individual.

    Of those who did have a public social media profile, almost all had neutral information available (nothing that would cause employer concern).

    Less than 1% had any information that might be deemed concerning relative to a hiring decision, for example, mentions of drug use, pornographic material, an orientation toward violence, and so forth.

    The flagged profiles were then reviewed by professional checkers to determine the number of individuals who may have drawn employer concern as a result of the screening and background check. In the end, few, if any, had information available that an employer could reasonably be expected to act upon.

    Only a tiny percentage of individuals posted potentially concerning information.

    Given the challenges inherent in acting on this data combined with the effectiveness of current screening tools, the additional value provided by social profile information is minimal. In our assessment, to reduce hiring risk and make more informed decisions, an adequate substitute for a quality background check through a reputable provider, does not exist.

    *Rob Pickell is senior vice president of customer solutions at HireRight, Inc. in Irvine, California, a provider of employment background and drug screening solutions. Rob has contributed insights on the use of social media in employment screening to numerous publications, including,, Canadian HR Reporter, HRO Today and HR Magazine.

    Disclaimer – Please Note:

    Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources management, employer, and workplace advice both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney, and the content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

    The site has a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so the site cannot be definitive on all of them for your workplace. When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.