Is Social Media Screening the New Drug Screen?

By: Matt Gainsford


The world we are living in is more connected, more visible, and never in history has there been a greater platform for the sharing of, well… everything, than social media. The ability to gain insight into someone’s life, thoughts, beliefs, experiences, how they spend their time, who they spend it with and what type of tacos they have on Taco Tuesday (if they even do Taco Tuesday) is unlike anything we have experienced before, and we are still coming to grips with the impact of it. When it comes to the hiring process and gaining insight into your next hire it can be a pretty polarizing place fraught with a lot of potential problems both legally and ethically.

Is social media screening legal? The short answer: Yes, BUT it has to be done within highly defined parameters. If you’re tasked with making hiring decisions and you decide to use applicant’s social media and are assigning your own thoughts and judgements to it, you’re opening yourself up to a world of problems, and discriminatory lawsuits. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) warns that screening social media profiles can facilitate unconscious bias. Whatever you see can’t be unseen. 

Why do social media screenings?

A CareerBuilder study found that 58% of employers conduct social screenings to look for information supporting a candidate’s qualifications for the job, 50% want to ensure the candidate has a professional online persona, and 34% want to see what other people are posting about the candidate.

What’s the point of looking into this? We want to make sure the candidate can not only do the job, but we want to assess their potential impact on the team, what behaviors could adversely affect the workplace directly or indirectly, and how this may end up reflecting on the company as a whole.

However, when looking into candidates’ social media, it is important to note that the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against potential job candidates on the basis of protected characteristics.

Protected class information typically includes the following:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion or creed
  • National origin or ancestry
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Veteran status
  • Genetic information
  • Citizenship
  • Marital status

Any hint of discrimination or hiring decision based on the above will land your company in a lot of potential trouble.

Depending on the state you’re in, employers need to pay attention to the legal restrictions on access to or use of applicant/employee social media posts as, under California law, employers are prohibited from requiring or requesting applicants or employees to disclose information regarding their personal social media accounts, which can make unlicensed searches both a legal and ethical issue.

So then what does a compliant social media screen look for/cover?

There is certain social media content that is a red flag for employers. CareerBuilder lists content such as provocative images/videos, information on drinking/drug usage, and discriminatory comments to be among the top 5 types of posts that will stand out to employers and make them pass on a candidate (more information in the graph below). In many cases, this is completely acceptable grounds for disqualifying a candidate.

Top 5 Reasons Employers Pass on Applicants Due to Social Media Posts

A compliant social media screening service will consider four categories of content:

  • Racist or intolerant
  • Sexually explicit
  • Potentially illegal
  • Potentially violent

Though access to this information can, on the surface, appear helpful, any screenings are to be conducted with the utmost integrity. We must remember that people grow, people change, and something they posted in 2016 may not be a good reflection of who they are today. Companies and hiring managers can get into hot water without the necessary safeguards in place.

Candidates also want to know they can trust the company to, where possible, have their best interests at heart. After all, it is a partnership. You are investing in them as much as they are investing in you. It is important to bear this in mind should you decide to implement social media screenings for your organization.

More than recruiters, Titus Talent Strategies are a team of Talent Optimizers. We empower companies to put the right people in the right seats through informed, connected strategies that combine data with an empathetic understanding of what makes people tick. You can predict retention; you can guarantee performance, and you can chart growth.

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