HR Should Define A Social Media Screening Policy


“Be careful what you post on social media.”

How many times have you heard that warning? One of the topics for which it is most frequently repeated: applying for a new job.

As the world goes digital, and the influence of social networks continues to grow, past social media posts can take almost anybody down – not only new hires.

Consider Walt Disney’s recent, highly-publicized firing of “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James GunnOpens a new window after his years-old insensitive tweets were resurfaced. Having made inflammatory posts between 2008 and 2011 in which he joked, among other topics, about pedophilia, the Holocaust, Aids and the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Disney was quick to distance itself from the besieged director, cutting ties with him entirely despite many of the film franchise’s stars and a large portion of the public coming to Gunn’s defense.

In this digital age, as social media enables the public to increasingly demand accountability from brands and companiesOpens a new window (and in Disney’s case, studios) for their actions and decisions, the default for most HR departments is “better safe than sorry.”

In other words, if HR finds anything even remotely incendiary on a job candidate’s social media profiles, that person stands zero chance of getting hired. In fact, according to a recently published reportOpens a new window , 70% of US employers look at candidates’ social networking profiles during the hiring process – up from 11% in 2006. Moreover, three in 10 have staffers specifically dedicated to this task.

The same goes for current employees: 48% of employers keep check on their employees on social media, while more than one-third of US employers have reprimanded or fired an employee based on posts they’ve made online.

In short, HR generally goes for the “shoot first, ask questions later” strategy.

With the number of employers using social media to check on employees and candidates at an all-time high, it is vital that HR departments are aware of the potential related pitfalls and find the best ways to mitigate those issues.

Potential issues of social media screening

Many HR professionals feel that social media screening allows them to get a more ‘honest’ representation of a candidate and his or her views, making for better hiring practicesOpens a new window .

While online networks can offer valuable insight into a candidate’s personality, preferences and interests that won’t necessarily be gleaned from a CV or interview, the lack of reliability on social media networks means that employers often misinterpret the inconsistent information they find.

Ultimately, then, HR runs the risk of unfairly increasing favoritism in its processes and even alienating itself from current and potential employees.

Most importantly, this ‘stalking’ can enter into a murky world of privacy and discrimination issues.

For instance, social media profiles often share the type of personal information that employers are barred from considering during the hiring process, including race, gender, color or religion, among others.

Additionally, people share other facts online about themselves which may not be evident during an in-person interview such as marital status, pregnancy status and disability – illegal to consider as part of an employment decision.

And as with all things digital, the information found online may not even be true.

Social media screening can lead to allegations of discrimination under Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) as well as various state laws, should a potential hire not get the job, opening companies up to more lawsuits and legal risks.

Defining a social media screening policy

Although analyzing an applicant’s digital presence is now common practice, no clear laws or case precedents exist that regulate the topic. Consequently, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure it is extremely careful, consistent and objective when performing employment screenings online in order to be aware of which information it can and can’t useOpens a new window .

In the age of social media, the best way to protect potential hires’ privacy, as well as limit the risks to the employer, is to have a well-defined and explicit social media screening policy for hiring managers that is compliant with discrimination and data privacy laws by:

• Ensuring consistency in the online screening of all candidates (and current employees).
• Pinpointing specific characteristics and actions to be screened in order to streamline the process
• Limit subjective discretion by looking only for information relevant to the offer of employment.
• Defining reasonable actions to help assess the accuracy of personal details found on social media.
• Distinguishing between personal and professional use of different social media platforms.
• Ensuring applicants are advised before any online screening is conducted, and allowing their response to data from online searches included in hiring process.