Social Screening of Job Candidates: Focusing on the Facts

There have been dozens of news stories and blog posts about the Federal Trade Commission’s recent decision regarding a company called Social Intelligence and the practice of pre-employment screening of job applicants based on their digital activity. Many of these pieces are misleading, and most of them are misunderstood. Here’s a link to my latest blog post, in which I strive to correct errors of both omission and commission and promote a fuller understanding of this important Digital Era practice.

As always, I welcome comments and questions. Thanks.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Chris Poirier

Interesting piece, however I think your points burried in your subtext surrounding the Social Intelligence specific articles is the most important: Private Industry members ARE conducting social media “back ground checks” in some way, shape, or form on candidates that are entering final phases of the interview and selection process. Granted, I totally agree the media is running off the cliff on this one, I think there is an at least an ounce of truth to be taken away and people should actually think about their digital presence. (Two fold really.. e.g., if you are asked to provide proof of social media activity for a’s probably not a good idea to have a landing point that talks about your weekend recreational drug habit, etc…)

The message is a good one: Think before you post..just because your friends think it’s funny and/or cool..doesn’t mean its private, etc.

Now the issue on Social Intelligence specifically and who is using what and for what purpose, etc..yeah different story..but to suggest everyone is “safe” from their digital identity is a little too misleading..

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Can you clarify some of your points, Chris? Specifically, who do you think is suggesting “everyone is ‘safe’ from their digital identity is a little too misleading.” Not me, I hope, because that is certainly not the impression I was trying to convey. This post is a follow-on to the white paper I wrote last fall, in which I clearly state that individuals must take responsibility for managing their own identities, and I believe I reinforced that point a couple times in this post as well.

Also, one of the reasons I shared this post on GovLoop is that social screening is going on in the public sector as well. In fact, one of the resources I shared was a piece about the Maryland Dept of Corrections and their run-in with the ACLU over a hiring practice asking candidates to provide their login credentials for all their social networking accounts.

My overall objective with the piece wasn’t to dismiss anyone’s concerns or highlight inaccurate media coverage. I wanted to make sure that folks who are truly interested in and/or concerned about the practice of social screening have a more complete – and fact based – understanding of the practice and its implications.

Thanks for your comments!

Chris Poirier

And you do a great job of outlining the different pieces, I think it was more so the prose and approach.

For example:

1.) Your lead off is specific to the Social Intelligence articles and how “none of it is true.” Most readers these days are absorbing major points from an article and your lead off tells me as a reader; “all these social media background check stories are false” and therefore, why should I worry?

2.) The actual discussion point on “understanding the risks” isn’t even mentioned until the paper is almost through. To me this says, this is not a major point of discussion, especially when it is followed up with more exampls of how the media has misinterpreted the problem.

It could be me, but I feel the way to approach this is the issue at hand is that social media “background checks” are becoming more common, they do take place, but also to note that people should be wary of media stories that sound off the wall (because they probably you note.) I think the lead off point is personal responsibility, (basically the order of your facts AS the white paper, the order there is great! though I would remove the FTC references..the point shouldn’t be about poor reporting, it should be about the issue.) not that the media has mischaracterized major examples of this…like most things in the news, there is some truth to the topic.

Just my two cents

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks, Chris. Your feedback reveals the importance of context, and the hazards of being too close to a topic (i.e., assuming knowledge that folks may not have). I’m curious to know if other people interpreted the lead off the same way you did.

The post is intended to be a direct response to the other pieces about the FTC’s decision rather than a general treatment of the issue (which is covered in the white paper and elsewhere), and I want to stick with that theme. That said, I may be able to tweak the intro to provide better context and more accurately convey my perspective.

Thanks again.

Chris Poirier

Certainly, context is always a “devil in the details” type of problem…I more then understand that (and suffer from it as 😉

Peter Sperry

I do not see any of this as that big a deal. The type of people who make jackasses of them selves on social media today are nothing more than the modern varient of the people who used to do the same thing at bars or social gatherings in the past. Sooner or later that type of behavior will catch up with you. It may happen a little faster today but not that much faster. There has always been a fine line between frank honest expression of controversial opinions and being an idiot. Likewise there has always been a similar line between letting your hair down at a party and making a fool of yourself. Most of us have crossed both lines at least a few times. Most of us try to avoid making a habit of it. Reasonably intelligent employers understand the difference between crossing the line a very few times and habit forming behavior.

I am sure they could dig into most applicant’s social history and find up to 10 items the applicant regrets posting. So what? Now if they find several hundred or if even a few involve felonies, their might be a problem. But any applicant worth hiring will have already put tthose on the table and explained them away. And if a prospective employer really does freak out over a small number of inconsequential mistakes, the applicant should consider themselves lucky to have dodged the bullet of a really bad work envionment.

Chris Poirier

@Peter- Seeing as I didn’t get into that part of the discussion, I shall now: you’re absolutely right. I have every social media landing point ON MY RESUME as content, its my portfolio for work 😉

Mark Hammer

Thanks for a nice summary, Courtney.

I’ve been involved in several discussions about using social media in this fashion, including here, and the aspect that I always remind folks of is that social media are typically used to stumble onto reasons NOT to hire someone. Indeed, it is difficult to determine how one might go about using social media to identify something admirable or value-added about a person. Not that it couldn’t happen, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Who knows, maybe some day, employers may begin searching forums like this one (or any other they deem suitably relevant to the organization’s hiring needs or culture) in a manner that lets them surmise “The guy made an ass of himself on facebook, and doesn’t seem to handle his liquor very well, but I like the way he thinks about this sort of problem”. In other words, use of social media for selection purposes might eventually grow up and be able to identify strengths as well as weaknesses in reliable, valid, and job-relevant ways. Fo now, I place it in the same class as 2nd-hand references from moderately trusted sources, or informal hallway chats; in other words, not a real selection tool.

Julie Chase

I don’t believe employers should use social media sites, including forums based on opinions as an employment screening tool. They have nothing to do with the job. Social media has become the “after work bar”, “a visit with relatives”, “a family reunion”. All great without having to be there. I agree that many millenials may lose out on some wonderful jobs due to the pictures posted on social media sites of them worshipping the porcelin idol. It is all in what you post. And throwing your “real name” out there on every social media site and/or message forum may bring trouble.

Chris Poirier

@Julie – You’re right, it might be a novel concept to not have an employer use it. But it’s there, and if people are silly enough to put things out there that..well..would not portray them in a good light..why should they NOT use that in considering your employment? So, really, it’s on us and how we use the media and what we post..not on the employer..

Mark Hammer

You make a cogent point about the extent to which one is able to locate information about a candidate that is linkable to that person. The ability to employ anonymous handles or adopt fabricated identities means that, to the extent one can locate web-available ifnormation about a candidate that might lower them in rankings or even result in them being screened out, one is penalized for allowing information to be connected to you.

A parable. About 20 years ago, I was teaching at a small university in eastern Canada. At the time, there was a high profile court case in the region involving the dismissal of a high school teacher for his publishing of Holocaust-denial material. One of my students was speaking to me after class one day and noted “You know, I had Mr. Ross for math in high school, and he was a pretty good teacher. He really cared about the students. I had absolutely no idea he was involved in any of this stuff.” Indeed, the perceived perniciousness of this teacher’s extra-curricular activities, given his role amongst impressionable youth, really only became an issue by virtue of the school board bringing them to public attention. Otherwise, the kids never even knew.

Now, as someone whose child is named for a cousin who perished in the concentration camps at age 5, you can imagine I am not exactly supportive of Mr. Ross. At the same time I fully understand that there are plenty who probably sympathize with his views, but don’t make the mistake of letting those views be publicly known or connectable to them.

So the question arises: To what extent do you penalize people whose misdeeds you know about, and ignore the misdeeds you don’t know about? We check criminal records under the assumption that all criminal activities will be documented, and if there are none documented the person is “clean”. Can we treat on-line behaviour in the same fashion? My sense is no.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Finally able to jump back in… Thanks for the thoughtful posts, everyone. Here are a few responses from me:

Peter: Your “bullet dodging” point is excellent, and one too many people forget. I also think it’s worth reiterating that most employers – at least the good ones – aren’t looking for petty reasons to exclude candidates. And particularly with respect to social screening by a third party, those checks aren’t usually conducted until the end of the interview process. At that point, the organization is interested in the candidate and is primarily concerned they may have misjudged the person. Their main goal is to manage their own risks.

Mark (1st comment): Though I didn’t mention it in my post, SI will look for and highlight positive information. I expect, however, that most employers don’t focus on that, but not just because they’re interested in the bad stuff. As a practical matter, the information and activity that put the candidate in a good light has likely already been shared by the candidate him/herself – particularly when, as Chris mentions, it’s relevant to the job.

Julie: Again, most good employers are going to focus on job relevant information. If a person’s political interests, for example, aren’t pertinent, they won’t be a factor in the selection process. But if you’re going to work for an organization that has a strong political orientation, then they do indeed matter. A private sector employer, in particular, has both a right and a responsibility to protect its brand and reputation, and if a candidate has engaged in activity that can be potentially damaging, they’re well within their rights to exclude that person from consideration. If I’m interviewing for a job at Apple but have gone on numerous blogs to rail against the company and its products/services, I’m probably not the best choice even though I was well within my personal rights to express myself.

Mark (second comment): I actually think the comparison holds, and the risks aren’t much different in the two scenarios. With a criminal background check, I believe they only look for convictions, so if a person uses illegal drugs but never gets caught, he/she will appear “clean.” There are limits to any kind of background check,so though they can reduce risk, they can never eliminate it altogether.

Mark Hammer

Thanks for the reply. Fair points. Given how labour intensive an online search on a candidate is likely to be, it would only make sense that such searches are an aspect of selection that would most likely take place at the end of the selection process, after more extensive assessment had already taken place, rather than earlier.

Still, the selection specialist in me says that you aim for equivalent amounts of information about candidates, especially if engaged in top-down selection. You wouldn’t make one candidate take 5 employment tests and another take 2, or rate one candidate on 7 competencies, and another on 3. And in many public sector places of employment, you couldn’t even get away with it. To the extent that the sheer volume of online information can vary across people, both in terms of its availability and findability, I still think it a little off the track of best practices in selection to incorporate online searches.

I think the considerations and caveats you describe are admirable and conscientious, and there is nothing to preclude one from trying to use it ethically and professionally. But in the grand scheme of things it still feels like a poor cousin of more traditional selection tools (and lord knows employers often don’t know how to use them properly).

Here’s the tricky question: how would one assess adverse impact? And if you can’t, would a candidate be in any position to launch grievances or discrimination charges over the use of online information in selection? (this assumes that what you found in their case was not “gardener’s pride” shots of their marijuana plantation or something similarly incriminating).

Would candidates have the oppportunity to challenge any online content used in making a selection decision? Following Stewart Brand’s suggestion/practice, I always strive to use my full real name to post anything, even in the midst of hordes of anonymous posters. Recently, I went to register at a site, and found someone had already registered with my name, obliging me to use another version of my name. So if that other Mark Hammer turns out to be someone who is a very demonstrative but not so pleasant fellow (and a while back we had a collection agency calling our home, in search of another Mark Hammer who apparently was not particularly attentive to due dates), how does the employer provide recourse so that I can disentangle that person from me?

Not insurmountable hurdles, but no cakewalk either. Not all employers will be able to meet those challenges adequately. Like I keep reminding people, just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Mark, your latest comments remind me of an important distinction, which I addressed in the Social Screening white paper I wrote last fall. Social sourcing occurs early in the recruitment process, whereas social background checks occur at the end. My latest post was really focused on social background checks, which is what employers would typically hire a company like Social Intelligence to do. And, like other background checks, they’re primarily used to identify risks a candidate might present for the employer.

In the context of background checks, I wouldn’t equate social searches (esp. those conducted by a third party) to screening tools like tests and interviews. That said, there are certainly situations in which social screening can – and should – be used as a screening device. The obvious example is that if a company is hiring someone to represent it in cyberspace, the candidates should demonstrate evidence of appropriate engagement. Or, if they’re looking for an open source IT specialist, they may want to find evidence the person is actively involved in the open source community and evaluate the nature of that involvement. But for positions in fields like accounting, where there is no requirement for digital engagement, it won’t be relevant.

Although cyberspace adds a new dimension to the recruitment and selection process, the rules are generally the same as before: it’s incumbent upon the employer to ensure that the criteria they’re using to select candidates are job relevant, non-discriminatory, and legally defensible.

When it comes to social background checks, I believe employing an FCRA-compliant service like that offered by Social Intelligence can help an employer meet its responsibilities. In addition to helping the employer focus its searches, verifying results, and redacting irrelevant information, there is also a process by which candidates can respond to and dispute any results they believe to be false.

Alicia Mazzara

Thanks for providing this really clear break-down. While I think a big point here is that employers are doing social media checks as part of the hiring process, I think it’s also important to demystify exactly what that means in the case of SI (publicly available information that is not stored in a database) and the FTC (SI will be subject to regulation under FCRA, it’s not that it’s been “approved” by the govt).

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks for your comment, Alicia. I agree those are two of the most salient points that get lost in much of the coverage on this important topic.

Susan Thomas

@Courtney, Thank you for this information. What technology gives with one hand, it takes with another. I would not base hiring decisions on social media alone. Trust but verify!

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Great question, John. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I suspect there are. I know it’s being done at the state and local levels.

Thanks, Susan! It’s always important to remember that the vilification or sanctification of new technologies rests with how people who use them rather than the technologies themselves.