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The Smart Way to Consider a Candidate’s Social Media

David Bloom
David Bloom

A well-rounded background check includes social media vetting to help small businesses build stronger cultures and protect their brands.

Imagine. You've built a great team and you couldn't be prouder. The team is knocking it out of the park and your business is growing. You create a new position, and after a few months of looking for someone to fill it, you find the perfect person. He has a rare combination of skill sets you weren't sure you could find. He's enthusiastic about the opportunity, and his background check and onboarding go smoothly. He dives in from the very first day.

However, after a few weeks, something feels off. You look forward to your weekly sync with your direct reports, but two in a row feel tense. You pull aside a leader who has been with you for a couple of years. What's going on? He's reluctant to talk about it because it feels like gossip, but he's heard that your new hire is sidestepping and undermining women he's supposed to work with closely. They are feeling frustrated, and one project in particular is taking way too long, as teams are not collaborating as they usually do.

You begin talking to other team members and your HR partner to try to understand what's going on. But on Monday morning, another employee comes to you with news. Feeling vaguely unsettled about her new colleague, she idly Googled him over the weekend. She was not at all prepared for what she found: ugly misogynistic and homophobic posts.

You feel sick. How did this happen? How did you hire someone so entirely opposite of everything you stand for, and the culture you've built? What can you do?

However, you also realize you've dodged a bullet; this could have been much worse. This was the person you were grooming to take on some important client relationships – and eventually become a face of your business for the media. A guy like this poisons corporate culture. The noticeable malaise your team has been feeling could have spiraled into months, or even years, of dysfunction.

Naturally, the thought occurs: why didn't you do a simple Google search yourself? Clearly, you would have seen warning signals. Yet, you vaguely remember reading that making hiring decisions based on social media can be illegal, so you've never gone there. What could you have done? [Looking for help with a background check? Check out our reviews and best picks of background check services.]

What you need to know about social screening

Well, honestly, it's a good thing you didn't do a maverick social media check yourself. That is a landmine for legal issues. And in a recent survey Sterling sponsored with, we learned that just over half (52%) of the HR professionals who responded believe that this area is only going to be more litigated in the future. "Protected class" information – including information pertaining to a person's race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, age and disability – are illegal to use in making a hiring decision. It's information you want to avoid online. Moreover, whatever information you are looking at, it's nearly impossible for even the most well-intentioned of us to remain fully neutral; we introduce bias and inconsistency when we try to do such a search ourselves.

At the same time, it can be irresponsible not to search. According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans use social media, and that number spikes to 90% for ages 18-29. And while most people are using social media for very different reasons, hate speech has been flourishing online. As Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times, "Social media companies have... enabled extremists to move their message from the margins to the mainstream.... In the past, they couldn't find audiences for their poison. Now, with a click or a post or a tweet, they can spread their ideas with a velocity we've never seen before."

There is a new solution to this hiring dilemma. Social media screening can be done legally and ethically, and it's rapidly getting smarter and easier to use.

What is social media screening?

AI-based social media screening analyzes publicly available online content – including social media, message boards, blogs, news articles, and comment sections – for red flags identified by the employer, such as sexism, bigotry, or violence. The technology powers a search that is far faster – and more comprehensive – than a human search. Thousands of articles and posts can be reviewed and results provided in a matter of hours. Technology is better equipped to uncover those objectionable comments made 100 posts ago that even a very patient human is likely to miss. Perhaps most importantly, AI-powered social media screening can help to ensure that the search operates within consistent boundaries.

What to consider in a social media screening solution

Of course, not all social media screening solutions are created equal, and you need to find one you can trust. Here are the most important features of a responsible social media screening program.

Compliance. Look for a solution that is compliant with the FCRA, EEOC and GDPR. As I mentioned, this is an area where you need to know what you are doing or you can quickly find yourself in hot water. Be sure to obtain a candidate's consent to the search and make sure your provider has a candidate dispute process if there is an issue.

Customization. You'll want to be able to define what matters to your company and the role. Setting these guardrails for your search also make it more consistent and straightforward. You only have decisions to make if a candidate's online behavior triggers one of the red flags you have established. Wendy Halson, vice president of customer success at Fama, an AI-based social media and web screening solution, tells us, "When implementing a new social media screening program, it should closely reflect your organization's mission and values. By aligning your screening criteria with your documented code of conduct and anti-discrimination policies, you are upholding the culture that you've worked hard to create."

Comprehensiveness of the search. The quality of the technology matters here. You want a smart AI-powered search that covers all types of publicly available content and has the tools in place for accurate identification. (You do not want to be pulling records for the wrong candidate.)

Integration. Today you can find social media screening solutions that integrate into your ATS, HRIS and other tools to make the process more streamlined. This makes it easy to enroll your workforce for ongoing screening, which is being adopted by an increasing number of businesses in place of a one-time, pre-employment check. If you have monitoring running, you will be alerted if an issue arises in an employee's online behavior – and have the opportunity to address the issue before teammates, clients and the press see it.

Why it matters

Look, you can do scrappy (and likely shoddy) searches yourself. Or you can skip this step altogether. But understand you may be missing relevant information. Fama has found that 12 to 15% of the time, social media search results uncover information that affect an employment decision. Increasingly AI-based social media screening with a trusted provider is going to be a no-brainer solution. And, honestly, you owe it to your team to avoid toxic hires that can so quickly torpedo the culture you've worked so hard to build.

Image Credit: Grinvalds / Getty Images
David Bloom
David Bloom Member
David Bloom is General Manager of the Small and Medium-Sized Businesses Group at Sterling, the global leader in employment background screening solutions. David was included in Entrepreneur Magazine's Brilliant 100 and on Business Insider’s list of 100 most interesting people in the NYC tech scene. David holds a BA degree from Bates College and an MBA from Cornell University.