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Background checks via social media: Should you?

By ZoomInsights staff

When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his dorm room, he probably never imagined that his pet project would become the center of a controversy in the HR world, but it has: Some companies have reportedly asked candidates for usernames and passwords to social media sites like Facebook. But doing so is risky.

"Asking job applicants to share their social media usernames and passwords could pose major legal, ethical, and public relations challenges for employers,” wrote Rhonda Smith and Donald G. Aplin on the BNA.com website. Some states have moved to make the practice illegal. Much of the information that appears in the average Facebook profile, however, is already off-limits to employers thanks to existing employment law; things like religious views, gender, marital status, and age.

And while the law prohibits you from asking candidates for such information, gathering it via social media won’t necessarily get you off the hook. According to a blog post on MikeYoungLaw.com, “When it comes to social media employment background checks, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has indicated that it plans to hold employers gaining information about potential employees over the internet subject to the same accountability as employers who obtain information about prospective employees in more traditional ways.”

Social media background checks done right

“I believe that hiring managers have a responsibility to be as aggressive as they can, in terms of learning everything they can about a candidate prior to hiring,” William Tincup, SHRM, told ZoomInsights. By following a few rules, you can use social media to enhance background checks. Michael Nader set out the Top 10 Guildelines for Social Media Background Checks on ere.net. Adhering to even a few of Nader’s rules could go a long way toward keeping your background checks legal and efficient.

  • Don’t ask for passwords or usernames. Rely instead on publicly available information
  • Perform all social media searches in a uniform manner
  • Remove any protected information before decision makers see it

Leave it to the pros

Another option is to leave social media checks to professionals. As with any new business opportunity, a cottage industry has sprung up in this area. One such company, Social Intelligence, checks up to seven years of social media history for “aggressive or violent acts or assertions, unlawful activity, discriminatory activity (for example, making racist statements), and sexually explicit activity.”

Working with such a contractor can help you avoid receiving irrelevant or protected information, but there are possible disadvantages, too. Mat Honan of Gizmodo points out that even the professionals can miss things, including entire profiles. In addition, they base searches only on the information you provide. This means tech-savvy job candidates could game the system, rendering the search virtually useless.

A risk/benefit decision

“The biggest problem is that our collective EEO laws are a bit behind technology advances,” said Tincup. So before your company starts putting together a strategy for conducting this kind of research, it might worth asking, “Is it worth it?” From the potential legal pitfalls to the incomplete nature of even professional searches, is the information provided by social media really worth the trouble?

ZoomInfo provides another option

ZoomInfo has detailed profiles on more than 50 million businesspeople at 5 million companies. There’s a good chance that ZoomInfo has a profile on a candidate you’re evaluating. While the profiles don’t include information from social media sites, they do provide up to 10 year’s-worth of clippings from business-related and news websites, as well as education and employment histories. Learn More.