Using Social Media Screening to Create a Better Culture

December 1st, 2021

Social media has evolved rapidly over the last 10 years, becoming a fundamental way that people engage with one another. Posts and their underlying meaning — including both what is intended and how it the intent can be perceived — can make powerful statements for all the world to see.

What is shared on social media does not exist in a vacuum, and what one posts on their personal accounts shows a lot about a person. The impressions others draw from someone’s posts can influence perceptions of the organizations with which the poster is associated.

Still, humans naturally seek validation and want to feel seen, heard and celebrated. Posting on social media invites feedback, which can induce a shot of dopamine to the brain. And the more dopamine we get, the more we want. With how quickly social media is evolving, this trend is only ramping up.

Issue can arise when what is intentionally broadcast on social media threatens the safety of those in our communities. In this situation, the line between a personal post and professional consequences is blurred.

Hiring for a Positive Culture

Recall how prior to the widespread adoption of social media, a person who dragged down workplace culture was typically only noticed within their own worksite. Perhaps the employee consistently made negative comments about the organization or coworkers around the water cooler. Maybe the individual toed the lines of discrimination and harassment by telling off-color jokes and using insensitive phrases.

Such negative behaviors frequently went undetected and unresolved by managers unless formal complaints were filed. That inaction allowed the toxic effects to spread through the organization in a grassroots fashion. In many cases, there was no way to predict any of this before an individual was hired.

Today, an ongoing record of tweets and posts leaves an indelible record that offers insights into a person’s reputation in both positive and negative ways. So, with the Digital 2020 July Global Statshot report showing more than half of the world’s population to be on social media, it is no surprise that we have seen instances of personal posting having professional ramifications.

Public online activity opens the door for organizations to look into whether job applicants and employees may be good fits for their culture. Also, the background screening industry continues to evolve to help employers build strong cultures and create safe workplaces. By the spring of 2018, a Harris Poll survey conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder determined 7 in 10 employers were using social networking sites to research job candidates during the hiring process. That same research revealed just over one-third of employers had reprimanded or fired an employee based on content found online.

Images from Washington

Prime examples of personal social media posts directly affecting posters’ work situations come from actions taken to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The events will long be remembered for what took place and the ways in which participants broadcast their activities to the world. While some of the most widely seen images and video were captured by traditional news outlets, a lot of the story was told in nearly real time by photos and videos captured on cell phones and posted to social media.

In some cases, individuals wore clothing with logos tying them to employers or organizations with which they were affiliated. In one instance, a now-former employee wore their company-issued ID badge while posing for photos with other rioters inside the Capitol. The employer responded by stating, “While we support an employee’s right to peaceful, lawful exercise of free speech, any employee demonstrating dangerous conduct that endangers the health and safety of others will no longer have an employment opportunity with Navistar Direct Marketing.”

What was posted on social media held significant consequences for that individual and others, as determined by their employers. Also in response, U.S. House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) called on the Defense Department to start looking at servicemembers’ and civilian employees’ social media posts as part of the security clearance process. According to a March 3, 2021, report by Military.com, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is inclined to take an aggressive approach to monitoring troops’ social media following reports that some servicemembers and veterans took part in the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Changes in military employment policy may impact views taken by other government agencies at all levels and among government contractors. After all, there are few work settings where culture and public perception are more important than in government. Public sector employees must reflect the values of the community, and they must conform to expectations set by both elected and appointed officials to help ensure ongoing faith in the critical work they do.

All employers may follow the public sector’s lead. Companies that operate within or help support critical infrastructure like high-tech manufacturing, energy and transportation have already expressed renewed interest in rapidly getting ahead of this issue to reduce risks for various liabilities. In a short time, there have been widespread impacts in the human resources space, especially regarding question over the factors that determine someone’s suitability to obtain or maintain employment.

Impacts to How Business is Done

Flagging behavior that violates employment policies or which is not aligned with established organizational values is more important than it has ever been. Soon after January 6, many executives and HR professionals began to ask themselves, “Do I know how my employees are behaving online and the potential negative consequences they can create?”

Social media screening done in advance of employment or while a person is employed can provide specific proof of behavior that violates an employer’s policies or expectations rooted in an organization’s code of conduct. As Ben Mones, the CEO and founder of Fama Technologies, the world’s largest social media screening company and a leader in applying artificial intelligence to background screening services, told HR Daily Advisor for a July 16, 2021, article, employers “are not seeking to use social media screening to understand their candidates’ political affiliations. The concern I hear every day is the need to know if applicants or employees are promoting extremist ideologies that might put a person in danger, or in some cases, promoting the dismantling of the federal and state government here in the U.S.”

Screening the Right Way

An unbiased and thorough review of an applicant or employee’s social media can flag inconstancies with policies or overall behavioral expectations. Consequences can range from coaching to progressive discipline, depending on the severity of what is found.

Be aware, however, that implementing a homegrown solution to social media screening such as establishing an internal HR team presents risk for common pitfalls. These pitfalls include failing to be thorough, inadvertently violating antidiscrimination laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by obtaining personal information which should not be considered as part of a hiring decision, and using staff time inefficiently by asking for manual reviews.

To protect individuals’ rights and prevent other negative consequences, it is recommended that social media screenings be handled through a robust, proven FCRA-compliant screening program. Automating the process and contracting with an experienced third party who uses risk criteria provided by the employer also helps deliver trustworthy, compliant findings upon which to base hiring and disciplinary decisions. Ensuring candidates and employees can challenge screening results is also crucial for compliance.

Social media is not going anywhere. Organizations must adapt their screening and monitoring programs in order to maintain the strength of their workplace cultures and to protect their brands.

Alla Schay is the general manager of the Industrials, Government & Education Group of Sterling, a leading provider of background and identity services. She previously served as Sterling’s client services and account management leader, chief operating officer, and chief human resources officer.

This article was originally published in HR News.

Sterling is not a law firm. This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.