With an estimated 2.65 billion people using social media worldwide in 2018, the odds are good that anyone applying for a position at your organization has at least one social media profile. In fact, they probably have more than one, since the average person today has over eight accounts, more than double the average number in 2013. Given those numbers, it’s no surprise that so many organizations are turning to social media screening as a way to learn more about potential job candidates.
Social media screening is a process by which employers view and evaluate information posted on a candidate’s social media profiles to determine their suitability for a position. As one might expect, the term “suitability” is doing some heavy lifting in this situation. It could mean assessing whether or not someone has a demonstrated history of using the skills that are essential to the job function in question. On the other hand, it could also mean identifying a pattern of risky or otherwise problematic behavior that could potentially create problems for an organization that hires them.
According to a 2018 CareerBuilder study, almost three-quarters of employers are using social media as a screening mechanism for new hires. Perhaps more importantly, 43 percent of them are also using it to monitor their current employees. Not every company is approaching screening in quite the same way, sometimes focusing narrowly on the candidate themselves and sometimes expanding out to look at broader aspects of their online presence (such as what other people have to say about them).
The idea of background screening is nothing new, of course. Companies have been conducting background and reference checks on candidates for quite some time, and there are many services available that make this process easier to conduct. There are cost and time considerations to background research, which is usually carried out by a third-party vendor. Social media screening, on the other hand, is much easier to conduct because the candidate’s information is publicly available on the internet.
A quick scan of a candidate’s LinkedIn or Facebook page will usually be sufficient to establish whether they possess the background and qualifications they claimed to possess on their application or resume. It can also provide a good idea of how the candidate conducts themselves publicly. Are they professional and respectful of others? Do they communicate effectively? Do they have a wide range of interests?
Although social media often blurs the line between a person’s private and professional life, many companies are understandably concerned that the same information will be available to their clients and customers. If a candidate is constantly posting about engaging in problematic (or even illegal) behavior or routinely sounding off about their employers or customers, most organizations will be understandably concerned about the implications of making that person a representative of their brand.
This ready availability of information creates some problems, however. Modern HR departments have carefully designed the hiring and candidate evaluation process to minimize the potential for discrimination and bias. There are many questions (especially where race and gender are concerned) companies are not even legally permitted to ask candidates. Organizations that fail to follow these strict guidelines open themselves up to serious liability problems.
Since social media information is freely provided by the candidate, employers sometimes think they can use it as a way of bypassing these restrictions. They may not be able to ask about a candidate’s age, marital status, or sexual orientation, but a quick scan of their Facebook profile may provide these answers (assuming the profile is truthful, which is a wholly separate issue). Unfortunately, simply knowing that information could expose the company to an accusation of hiring discrimination should they decide to not hire the candidate.
Even worse, social media screening can allow unconscious biases to influence hiring decisions. For instance, if a hiring manager learns that the candidate shares their interests, follows the same celebrities, or uses the same products, they could be unfairly predisposed to favoring them over other applicants. While there’s always a danger of this information finding its way into the interview process, it’s especially damaging when bias takes root during the initial screening before the applicant even has an opportunity to interview.
And that’s to say nothing of candidates who lack a social media presence to begin with. Eliminating a qualified applicant because they don’t have an Instagram profile, for instance, is hardly a sophisticated method of identifying a best-fit candidate.
If your organization is going to use social media screening as part of its hiring process, it’s critical to have a few rules in place before doing so.
Depending on the social media platforms you’re looking at, there could be a strong temptation to plunge into the candidate’s personal life to learn everything about them. Unfortunately, digging for these details will result in far more trouble (potentially of the legal variety) than it’s worth. Looking for information about the candidate’s work experience and job performance can support details gathered throughout the interview and assessment process, which is usually far more valuable than knowing how someone likes to spend their free time on the weekends.
Turning to social media as the first way to trim down the list of candidates is a bad place to start. First of all, it’s not based on any hard data or objective assessment methodology. Furthermore, unless the position you’re hiring for is focused on social media usage, there’s no reason to think there’s any correlation between a person’s social media profile and their ability to do the job in question. While some people are true “digital natives” who spend a lot of time cultivating their social media presence, others put little to no thought into their social media profiles. Eliminating people on this basis before the hiring process even starts is guaranteed to cost you some of your most capable candidates.
Social media profiles are not necessarily an accurate depiction of reality. They are a carefully cultivated public image that someone has chosen to present to the world. It’s not uncommon for people to look far more interesting, capable, and engaging on social media than they are in their everyday lives. They may not be lying about details (although that’s always possible), but always remember that nothing you see should be taken for granted without corroborating evidence of some kind.
If you’re going to look at a candidate’s social media presence, you should consider evaluating a number of different channels. Each platform offers a different experience and caters to different needs. A LinkedIn profile, for instance, is usually going to be more professional than a Snapchat account. Some people even cultivate very different online identities across platforms. A person with a perfectly boring Facebook profile might prove to be a confrontational firebrand on Twitter. If you’ve decided you want to use social media screening, you might as well be thorough to assemble a comprehensive picture.
Falling afoul of anti-discrimination laws at the state and federal level can put your company in an embarrassing and expensive situation. Make sure you understand what information you are not permitted to request from candidates and put controls in place to ensure your social media screening doesn’t circumvent those laws. It may be helpful if the screening is conducted by someone who has no involvement in the actual hiring process to keep the focus on specific, work-related details and reduce the potential for bias.
Relying on social media screening to make your final hiring decisions is a recipe for disaster. While there’s nothing wrong with using it to create a more nuanced and complex view of a candidate, social media is not reliable enough as a hiring tool to justify using it for selection purposes. If something about a candidate’s profile strikes you as disqualifying even though nothing else in the hiring process supports that impression, you’re either making too much out of nothing or there’s a serious flaw in the way you’re assessing candidates. And if it’s the latter case, you’ve got bigger problems on your hands than just a social media screening issue.
Social media screening may not provide much in the way of objective data, but organizations looking for that data can find it through pre-hiring assessments. Unlike social media profiles, these tests are scientifically designed to generate meaningful results that tell you whether or not a candidate possesses the right skills for a position or will be a good cultural fit for your organization.
At the Omnia Group, we’re committed to providing companies with the right tools to make better hiring and employee development decisions. Our selection of cognitive and behavioral assessments are designed to provide you with actionable data that helps you hire best-fit candidates and ensure that your employees have the resources they need to reach their potential. To learn more about our assessment tools, contact us today and let us know about the unique challenges of your workforce.