January 12th, 2023 | Sterling

3 Common Employer Misconceptions About Online Screening and Social Media Background Checks

If you’re an HR or talent professional, you might be struggling to find time to review the mountains of candidate data you’re finding — or you might be wondering if your screening policy is fully compliant with the FCRA and equal opportunity hiring guidelines. Perhaps your organization is still planning on getting an online screening program or policy in place while your HR and recruiting staff may be searching candidates on the web and social platforms themselves. And of course, online data is only a part of all the candidate data that you’re analyzing as part of the hiring process.

While you may already be familiar with the benefits of pre-employment online screening, many employers still have misconceptions about this practice. In fact, according to Fama’s recent eBook, “The Legality of Online Screening,” more than 54% of companies have reversed a hiring decision based on social media screening. But what exactly DO employers need to know when creating and implementing a compliant online screening program?

Recently, Fama and Sterling addressed how employers can resolve this issue, co-hosting an intimate discussion with Sterling clients. “The Importance of Social Media Screening and How to Stay Compliant.” Providing actionable insights about designing a compliant online screening policy, the roundtable featured a panel of expert presenters including Pam Devata, Labor and Employment Partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Chicago, Angela Preston, Associate General Counsel, Corporate Ethics and Compliance at Sterling, and Ben Mones, CEO and Founder of Fama, a leading online screening company. Together they named the major misconceptions employers have concerning social media screening and how to remain compliant during the hiring process.

Misconception #1: “Just Google It!”

Kicking off the roundtable, our moderator, Sterling’s own Katelyn Brower, asked our panel, “Why should companies avoid having a ‘DIY’ mentality when it comes to Google searching their candidates on social media?”

Pam Devata: “HR staff and managers often ask us, ‘Why can’t I just do a Google search on our candidates myself?’ My first answer is that, in this area, it’s really important to ensure that the data you find is accurate. Yes, searching your candidates’ social history via the web turns up a myriad of information, but some of it is accurate and relevant, and much of it is not. That’s true whether you’re in HR, security, risk management, or any other industry. By contrast, if you engage the services of a social media screening vendor, you’re using an expert to give you only the information you want, while filtering all the data you don’t need to see or collect.”

Ben Mones: “I absolutely agree: the truth is that employers can’t just do a quick Google search on their candidates and still be compliant regarding equal opportunity laws applying to the hiring process. While social media screening is an art, not a science, it also involves a lot of technical matters and legal intricacies. Any time your business uses a CRA (credit reporting agency), you have to operate within specific compliance regulations under the law.”

Ben continued, “A third party is also experienced at helping companies answer the tricky question, ‘What exactly does workplace misconduct look like online?’ Sure, you can Facebook your candidate, but you can never un-see the information you find. For example, if you were to see a pregnancy announcement, your simply having this information could easily introduce bias into your hiring process. If you’re working in a regulated industry, your business could be culpable for acting on this kind of biased information, which could mean incurring a fine or other penalty.”

As a result, many companies often actively avoid conducting online screening on their candidates as a way to mitigate the risk of hiring bias. However, regarding online searches, employers don’t need to create a glaring blind spot which could lead to a problematic hire who puts the company at risk by engaging in workplace misconduct. By working with a background screening partner, employers can specify details upfront, including the types of data they want reported, and the types they don’t want reported. The consistency and comprehensiveness of an online screening program can also deliver additional cost savings while helping businesses to remain compliant by avoiding hiring bias.

Misconception #2: “Rogue” Google Searches Aren’t a Social Media Screening Policy

As today’s HR professionals and managers know very well, it’s still a candidate’s market out there. That’s why, when job seekers choose to find a new job or career, their main driver is often workplace culture — especially their desire to work at organizations that align with their values and avoid toxic workplaces. Sterling’s 2022 benchmark report, “Hiring Reimagined“, found that among the 3,777 job seekers we surveyed, when asked to name the most important element of the background screening process, their leading answer was one which was “reflective of the organization’s culture and values.”

Fama also shared revealing data from their ebook, “The Cost of a Bad Hire,” highlighting the fact that team productivity plummets by as much as 40% when employees have to endure workplace misconduct, bullying, or other unacceptable behaviors. That’s why the key to retaining your people, attracting talent, and creating a strong employee experience is about ensuring that your company’s culture and values are a core part of your hiring practices and criteria.

Katelyn raised the issue of how companies can begin to build that culture based on trust and safety: “How exactly do HR professionals and managers begin to design a compliant social media program?”

Ben: “At this point, a third of the global population has a social media profile. People’s online behavior should therefore be considered significant in the hiring process, especially for companies whose cultures are built around helping to prevent harassment, racism, and other intolerable behaviors. For these businesses, it’s not a question of whether they should perform pre-employment social media screening, it’s more an issue of ensuring they’re conducting their social media screening in a compliant way.”

Ben added, “Consequently, creating a social media program starts by asking, ‘What data do we want to report? What candidate behavior negatively impacts our business?’ In essence, HR leaders must determine what specific social media behavior their business wants to screen. For many companies, the first place to start is any online instance of intolerance or threatening behavior. Then you can incorporate that decision into your overall talent acquisition strategy. This is one area in which it can benefit your business to use a third party to handle your social media screening.”

Pam: “Again, HR professionals and managers should be aware that there are laws applying to third parties and CRAs performing social media screening. This regulation helps protect your business from ‘rogue’ Google searching. Instead, businesses can operate under a higher standard using a social media screening partner.”

Pam offered additional advice in this area: “When performing pre-employment social media screening, we strongly encourage companies to search for alias names as well. For example, when encountering similar names, you can provide extra identifiers including known aliases. A screening vendor can also look at LinkedIn to confirm those identifiers you provided. Then from there, they can examine the candidate’s social media usage. At Fama, for example, a combination of people and machine usage helps to confirm this data and helps ensure accuracy.”

Misconception #3: Mountains and Mountains of Data!

Katelyn asked the panel to address the concerns of employers who avoid screening their candidates’ online history out of fear of dealing with a tidal wave of data.

Angela Preston: “Sterling is often asked by clients: ‘How can we get our pre-employment social media screening program started?’ We suggest you first determine your company’s internal policy and then use it as a cornerstone regarding further social media screening. Be sure to include legal, compliance, and information security teams when designing your social media screening policy. Together, ask questions such as, ‘How will we adjudicate this information? How will we prioritize it, treat it, and finally, use it? How should it guide us in our hiring policies?’ Regarding this misconception about ‘mountains of data,’ at Sterling, we enjoy partnering with Fama in part because we can help employers determine just what kinds of data to screen, and then zero in on the relevant information by setting data filters tailored to specific job roles.”

Pam: “Employers often assume that when they partner with a vendor to handle social media screening, they’ll then have to sift through a mountain of information, but this just isn’t the case. In fact, it’s a key area where a vendor can add value. Naturally, some details found on social media will be very important to your business and relevant to the duties of the job. A vendor can customize filters to uncover only this sort of data to exactly match your business and culture priorities.”

Ben: “Yes, companies do often assume that if they partner with a vendor, that vendor will just dump a mountain of data that HR managers will then have to sift through. But in reality, a social media screening partner first helps you filter all that data, and then delivers everything that’s relevant. In this way a screening vendor gives you the ability to control the aperture of data so you’re not seeing anything that’s not potentially relevant, as you’ve specifically defined it. For example, your business can state, ‘We’re not as interested in seeing posts such as dirty jokes, but we absolutely want to see any and all instances of online bullying and harassment.’”

Ben continued, “As an example of how this data filtering looks in practice, a client of ours recently started a social media screening program based on identifying potential financial security threats. To accommodate this, at Fama we make use of what we call a ‘values-match program’ with our clients, since social media screening can act as a critical component of the candidate evaluation process. At first our client was concerned that they would receive more information than was relevant, but when they saw the many ways we could help them to filter and configure that data, they understood how they could take full control over exactly what information they get. As an employer using these filters, you can also fine-tune exactly what kinds of data you see from your candidate universe. This really helps your business handle dual adjudication of your compliance and business needs. Since the more common ‘red flags’ employers use to identify toxic behavior may change over time, CMAs such as Fama and Sterling help clients by providing information on this and other matters.”

An online screening partner is also an experienced SME (subject matter expert) in the field. Because of their expertise in both online and social media screening, a vendor is well-positioned to deliver time and cost savings along with compliance risk mitigation.

Ben concluded our compliance discussion with this observation: “Of course, we’re not advising employers on hiring decisions and we’re not using online and social media data to make assumptions: we’re simply giving them the data that reveals candidates in their own words and actions.”

Concluding Thoughts

As our hosts revealed, the many misconceptions surrounding pre-employment online screening have contributed to considerable confusion among employers seeking to design a compliant online screening and workplace misconduct prevention and reporting program. There’s a lot of personal data out there online, not all of which is relevant to your hiring policy — or legally useable. While online screening helps companies prevent misconduct at work while also promoting trust and safety in the workplace, it’s also very nuanced, time-consuming, and potentially risky to conduct on one’s own. Engaging the support of a trusted background and online screening partner is the key to identifying and, when necessary, acting on the critical information found online in order to help build and protect a strong company culture. To learn more, visit our social media screening service page.

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.