Screening Job Candidates Online: Risky Business?

Sponsored by: Fama.io

It’s no secret. On a daily basis, recruiters and hiring managers are screening job candidates online by simply entering their names in search boxes at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and beyond. Experienced professionals know they shouldn’t be doing this, but many do it anyway. Why?

The Slippery Slope of DIY Candidate Screening

Publicly available online information can reveal a lot about potential employees. It gives employers insight into an individual’s hobbies, interests and personality traits. It also shines a light on controversial opinions, political affiliations and protected class information. 

Gaining unrestricted access to a candidate’s public social media profiles may be easy. But instant access isn’t a free pass to engage in unethical or potentially illegal hiring practices.

That’s why it needs to stop. Screening job candidates without permission is an invasion of their privacy rights — especially the right to consent to the search.

Catching Up With the Rules

To be fair, most recruiters and hiring managers don’t fully understand laws involving online background screening. That’s partially due to the relative novelty of this practice, as well as a lack of updated guidance.

But now that online screening has become so widespread, employers need to know how to protect their organization as well as job candidates. That’s why it’s important to understand the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Learning how to comply with these regulations is worth an employer’s effort. Online screening can be a powerful tool to determine an individual’s hireability. And when performed correctly, an online background check is an effective and perfectly legal hiring practice. 

How can you make this process work better for your organization? Let’s look closer at key legal aspects of screening job candidates online. First, I’ll explain how problems tend to arise. Then, I’ll suggest steps for a fully compliant, worry-free screening process. 

Understanding the Controversy

Why exactly is social media screening so controversial? Calling it an invasion of privacy is hard to defend, since many social media profiles are publicly available. Furthermore, applicants freely choose what, when and how they share on their social media profiles.

Much of this information may reflect positively or negatively on a candidate’s ability to perform in a work-related capacity. For example, education, work history, extracurricular activities and hobbies are often prominently featured on social media profiles. And employers typically evaluate this kind of information during the interviewing process, anyway.

However, the issue isn’t about employers using information that would otherwise be discussed during a standard interview. Instead, it’s about access to information that organizations are legally and ethically obligated not to consider.

We’re talking about legally protected categories such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status or religion. This is where issues arise, because the moment anyone views a social media profile, it may inherently reveal details about protected categories.

How Widespread is This Practice?

In a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, 70% of employers said they regularly review social media profiles as part of the hiring process. Furthermore, 54% acknowledged that they’ve rejected applicants based on a social media review.

However, the survey does not indicate how often social media reviews were being conducted by hiring managers who are legally obligated not to consider protected information. 

When used correctly, online screening can highlight positive work traits like compassion or open-mindedness. But it can also reveal negative traits. For example, what if a candidate threatens others in a post or shares a video while committing a violent act? This kind of behavior isn’t welcome in the workplace and would likely hinder the candidate from performing effectively in any role.

Steps to Achieve Better Outcomes

For a fully compliant screening process, consider these best practices:

1. Clarify the Rules

Defining a clear set of guidelines is essential for all background check methods — including online screening processes. According to leading U.S. employment attorney, Pam Devata, “In general, the same rules apply, whether you are using social media or more traditional methods for conducting background checks.”

In a recent interview, Devata explained, “The keys are consistency, accurate record keeping, ensuring that any data accessed is not legally protected information prohibited from being used in employment decisions, and that any decisions are rooted in business necessity.”

2. Focus on Documentation

Before attempting to navigate the nuances of social media screening, it’s important to establish consistent, generalized hiring practices across the organization. This includes putting a process in place to record and track all pre-employment decisions and FCRA-required disclosures.

Although it can be challenging to document online screening activity, consistent, accurate record-keeping will put your organization in a better position to address any issues that may arise. 

3. Partner with a Specialized Service Provider

One of the easiest ways to address the complexities surrounding online candidate research is to rely on a trusted online background screening partner like Fama.

With a proven, independent team managing the screening process, employers can gather only the information needed to assess an applicant’s job potential, without the risk of revealing protected categories. In fact, the strongest digital screening solutions include compliance filters. This ensures that reports shared with hiring teams focus solely on job-relevant information.

At Fama, we go beyond bare-minimum compliance protections by applying ethical AI and machine-learning technology. Also, a team of skilled humans reviews our screenings to ensure their legitimacy and accuracy. This helps us continuously improve our screening capabilities and our results.

Final Thoughts

No doubt, social media screening is bound to remain a controversial topic. But when you’re not sure about the legal implications, it’s important to avoid the false assumption that it’s safe to assess a candidate’s online presence on your own.

Guaranteed compliance is always possible by working with an objective, third-party screening solution. This means your team will benefit from a fully compliant screening process. And ultimately, it means your organization can focus on finding the best candidate for every job.