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Sleuthing job candidates’ social media or off-list references can put your organization at risk

Today, it’s almost expected for people to express their emotions, thoughts and actions – noble or not – on social media. By checking out your candidates’ profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and the like, you can find some information supporting their job qualifications and get an idea of how they interact with others. In fact, 70% of employers screen candidates by viewing their social media presence, according to a CareerBuilder study. Social media screening has become so popular, one of the myths in our blog post Debunking Some of the Myths of Reference Checking and related webinar, is that some people think that a recruiter or hiring manager viewing a candidates social persona can deliver more or better information than traditional reference checking.

However, when you explore a candidate’s social media presence, you might wind up wishing you hadn’t. And depending on what action you take after viewing that information, there could also serious compliance risks. The reality is you may find too much information (TMI) such as party photos, embarrassing conversations, and complaints about a current or former boss. Suddenly you’re faced with a quandary about whether what you’ve discovered should influence your decision-making. Bear in mind, much of this information is irrelevant to the hiring decision. In such a case, it helps to know what you can and cannot consider. And, like it or not we all have our own unconscious biases, and these can come into play after reviewing social media profiles and postings.

Protect against bias

There’s the problem of unconscious bias and whether information that is found on a candidate’s social profile, such as race, religion or national origin, marital/family status and other personal information subconsciously impacts a hiring decision. Whether you’re delighted or dismayed by what you find on your candidate’s social media sites, you should protect your organization unwittingly violating federal anti-discrimination law, specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin. And consider that what you find, especially posts written about your candidate by others, may not even be true.

In the CareerBuilder survey, 44% of employers hired someone based on something found about the candidate on social media, for example, a good professional image and evidence that supported their qualifications and showed great communication skills and creativity. Conversely, 54% of hiring managers and HR professionals declined to hire a candidate after viewing their social media. The top five reasons:

  • They posted provocative photos, videos or other information;
  • They posted about drinking or taking drugs;
  • They made racist or discriminatory comments;
  • They bad-mouthed their former boss;
  • They lied about their qualifications.

Your prospect’s social media footprint can be a rich field of information about their attitudes, work habits and personal life. But, if you’re not careful about what you learn and what you or others in the hiring process do with that information, you may wind up making biased hiring decisions and exposing your organization to lawsuits.

Off-list or backdoor reference checking

Some recruiters also look at job candidate’s connections and seek out individuals on who may have worked with them and then reach out to ask them about the candidate – these are what are typically referred to as back-door or off-list reference checks. An article by California State University Professor Michael Moon, titled ‘Undisclosed off-list reference checks: Violating the human to manage the resource,” published in the Epherma Journal dedicated to HCM issues, highlights the problems of off-list reference checks. Moon compares the problem that unchecked data gathering poses in the current age of the Internet to Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial. In the novel, information collected by a bureaucracy is used to arrest and prosecute the main character without ever telling him why. There are other, more proven ways to screen your candidate. Online reference checking can help you reach a broad cross section of references easily and can provide a compliant process through standard, job specific surveys that ask references appropriate, scientifically validated questions.

Best practices for social media screening

Consider these strategies according to a recent SHRM article:

  • To protect your candidate’s privacy, get their written consent to do a social media screen.
  • To ensure you’re playing fairly and to guard against claims of discrimination, set up standardized social media screening practices that are used for all candidates so that you can document how your hiring decisions are made objectively, according to what the job description requires.
  • To further protect yourself from bias accusations, consider using a third party to conduct social media screening and provide a report on an applicant’s social profile. That way the social screening is not being done by the same entity or individuals who are making a hiring decision.
  • Use a consistent and compliant process that allows you to understand a job candidates’ skills and competencies for the role and provides you with relevant data. Online solutions like SkillSurvey Reference® can help. The job candidates participate in the process and select and enter their references. Contrary to popular beliefs that references only share glowing recommendations, SkillSurvey’s studies find show that 80% of references will provide information about a candidate’s areas in need of improvement.

Make sure you establish standard procedures for your reviews of candidate information to guard against any unintended unfairness on your organization’s part, and exercise caution when it comes to respecting your candidates’ privacy or the potential for bias to come into hiring decisions.

Read more about how you can increase your success of hiring the right candidate with fast, effective digital reference checking with SkillSurvey Reference®.

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