Should you use social media for a reference check? [INFOGRAPHIC]

social media reference check

This article was recently updated.

It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of checking a job candidate’s social media accounts as part of the hiring process was utterly discounted. Doing so was thought of dubious value to understanding an applicant’s professional viability. In the last few years, however, that has seriously changed.

How a candidate acts on social media isn’t just a reflection of their professionalism and personality. Their online behavior can also be a sign of how they will represent your business as an employee. The evaluation potential of social media is obvious and many employers are already incorporating it into their recruiting strategy. In a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 43 percent of organizations reported using social media to screen job candidates – an increase from 2013.

Others are more hesitant. Some hiring managers wonder if social media checks are on shaky ground legally. Is looking at a candidate’s Facebook and Twitter accounts the same as asking them about religion or marital status? Is there a good reason firms shouldn’t check social media during the hiring process? In most cases the answer is no. But you still need to proceed with caution.

Privacy concerns to keep in mind
Reviewing a candidate’s online presence will naturally raise privacy concerns. There’s no need to overreact though. Many of the laws that govern interviewing and hiring are also applicable to reference checks. Proceed with the usual limits in place and you’ll keep out of legal grey areas.

Lisa Bertini, whose law firm specializes in employment law, told The New York Times that there is actually relatively little case law on which to base social media screening decisions. In the absence of precedent, it’s best to be cautious – but not overly so. Employers need to be careful not to draw conclusions solely based on social media – that is when it becomes illegal. Bertini gave the example of learning a candidate was pregnant from social media and using this to reject her. That’s unlawful discrimination however you look at it.

With privacy concerns in mind, the fact of the matter is that it’s better to deal with potential issues early than wait for them to surface after you’ve already made a hire. Say for instance that you’re looking to fill investor relations jobs within your firm. If you find that a candidate is offensive to certain people based on race or gender on social media, that’s a legally defensible reason to reject them.

Keeping bias out of the equation
Without meaning to, investigating a candidate’s digital footprint can lead to bias in a hiring decision. A July 2015 report from the Social Science Research Network found that some employers do indeed exhibit bias based on social media screenings, which needless to say can cause any number of problems both legally and morally.

“Removing bias from the hiring decision is essential for giving every candidate a fair appraisal.”

To reduce the risk of unfair attitudes, keep the social media researcher on your human resources team separate from those charged with making the hiring decision. That way any relevant information is included in the process without any personal bias attached. This division of labor is essential to the fair appraisal every candidate deserves.

If you’re still feeling uneasy about using social media for reference checks, The Times recommended that you pose to yourself the following question: If the candidate were to ask you how you learned about potentially troubling online comments or content, would you be comfortable explaining it to them?

Utilizing social media to screen a candidate might be relatively new, but doing it ethically and effectively comes down to treating it as you would any other part of the hiring process – with attentiveness, respect and common sense. If you’re still a little wary, reference the infographic below before you go ahead and use social media to check up on candidates.

Created by Grant Cooper