Using Social Media Sites as References when Screening Potential Employees

There is debate among recruiters over whether or not it is wise to use social media as a means to check references for potential hires. On one hand, obtaining information about a candidate through social media sites can provide insights into an individual’s behaviors and attitudes, which can help determine whether that person will fit into your company’s culture. Conversely, when taken out of context, the information may be misinterpreted. Either way, you must consider that if the information obtained is not specifically relevant to the position you are hiring for, you may be exposing your company to potential litigation.

Discrimination charges are a significant legal risk associated with investigating candidates online. Learning about a disability or a characteristic that would include the individual in a protected class is likely information that would not have otherwise been disclosed on a resume or during the interview process. If the individual is not hired for any reason, the fact that you had the protected knowledge could work against you. Here are some tips to avoid legal risk:

  • Establish a standard screening policy that includes specific language spelling out the criteria being utilized to make a decision regarding an individual’s candidacy. Ensure that the policy is implemented consistently across the entire company or across similar job categories.
  • Create a list of sites that will be researched and use only those sites.
  • Have the information reviewed by an individual who is detached from the selection process. This person should also make the determination as to whether or not any piece of information should influence the hiring decision.

    (Ideally, the individual reviewing the sites should be the same person who makes the final recommendation based on the documented policy.)

  • Document your findings. Keep accurate and detailed notes that indicate the sites referenced, as well as the information that was found and your final decision.

A final factor to consider is whether or not the information obtained is even likely to be useful with regard to the position being filled and therefore if it is worth the legal risk. When hiring a public relations professional, a company would be justified in wanting to know how a potential candidate brands and represents himself/herself online. The information obtained may reflect how that individual will represent the company. By contrast, it is probably not necessary to research the online profile of an individual being considered for a mail room clerk position. Because the information is not related to the position, is it worth the legal risk?

In the majority of situations, my recommendation is to utilize social media sites for finding potential candidates only and to stick to traditional methods for reference checking. Exceptions may exist for specialized positions where individuals are being hired for highly public or recognizable positions that represent “the face” of the organization. If social media sites are utilized, make sure policies are well documented and reviewed by counsel.

What do you think about using social media sites to research potential candidates? Have you used this resource successfully? How does your company use social media to support its hiring process and what are some of your lessons learned?

What are your thoughts? Let's discuss:

As a recruiter, I’m exposed to new opportunities and information on a daily basis. I thrive on learning about new industries, new technology, new positions—and then using what I’ve learned to help make a great candidate-company match.