Vetting job candidates on social media? Beware the risk

When assessing the wisdom of certain hiring practices, it’s good to know what lawyers who specialise in employment litigation do when they are hiring.

Robert Blumberg, an employment lawyer in Los Angeles, said he never looks at social media profiles to investigate the backgrounds of attorneys who are candidates for jobs at his firm, Littler Mendelson PC.

He said any additional information he might find out about those candidates through a social media search is not worth the risk of inadvertently running across protected information.

In many countries – such as the United States – that have strict hiring regulations for employers, laws prohibit considering factors such as race, gender, or religious affiliation in hiring decisions.

“I don’t look at [candidates] on social media,” Blumberg said. “I could. I affirmatively choose not to, because I don’t really want to know that information. I think there are too many dangers. There are too many things that you shouldn’t know and shouldn’t be part of the hiring process.”

Many employers are using social media sites to recruit talent globally, but they may be incurring risk as they do it. Fifty-four per cent of respondents in a survey by CEB, a member-based advisory company, said social media sites can be effective tools for recruiting and reaching quality candidates. That’s up 14 percentage points from the previous year’s survey.

But just 27% said they have formal policies in place regarding social media information and hiring practices. The CEB survey asked HR professionals around the world a wide range of questions on hiring practices and other talent management topics, including the use of social media in recruiting.

Respondents in the Middle East and Africa are more likely to use social media information as part of their formal hiring process; 28% said they would do so. In the Americas, the percentage was 14%.

Ken Lahti, Ph.D., the vice president for product development and innovation for CEB, said that may be because employers in highly regulated environments are more likely to forgo social media vetting in favour of validated, authenticated, objective measures of the job requirements in order to make hiring decisions.

Jurisdictions with fewer hiring regulations may have more freedom to use social media to vet recruits without fear of lawsuits or fines that could result from accusations of using protected information during the hiring process.

Experts say that even in highly regulated environments, social media can be a powerful tool for advertising job openings and even for initial identification of potential candidates. The key is using that tool correctly. And some experts advise that using it correctly means not tapping into candidates’ social media for background checks – or being very careful while reviewing social media if you decide to do it.

Develop a formal policy

Lahti said it’s best to have a formal policy surrounding the use of social media in recruiting. Employers that allow managers to review social media in an unstructured way may run afoul of equal opportunity regulations.

“Employers incur risk that some managers may not make the best choices in terms of the information they request, the information they use, or how they manage and maintain personal information from social media inquiries,” Lahti said.

There is no question that social media can be a powerful tool for recruiters. Four in 10 respondents in the CEB survey said candidate information on social media sites is useful in determining a job-seeker’s potential fit with the organisation. That’s up from 29% a year ago.

The survey separated social sites from professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and GlassDoor, saying that the latter carried more weight. Twenty-four per cent of respondents allow recruiters and hiring managers to use Facebook and Twitter to make decisions about candidates, and 42% allow the same based on professional networking information.

Possibility of discrimination

The danger to recruiters can come if they review a candidate’s Facebook site, for example, and see information that has nothing to do with qualifications for the job. Although the recruiter may not be looking for protected characteristics such as the person’s age, disability, gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, they may not be able to avoid seeing that information as they browse Facebook or Instagram.

It may be immediately obvious, for example, that the applicant practises a certain religion, has a certain relationship status, or supports a certain political party. Recruiters seeing that information may form opinions about the applicant based on information that in some cases is legally prohibited from being considered in the hiring process.

“If you’re an employer, proceed with extreme caution,” Lahti said, “because some of this goes against the momentum that HR has had over the past five decades … in trying to further objectify the hiring process. And without the proper controls and processes in place, this … opens the door for both overt and unintentional bias.”

It’s easy to see the potential benefits of using information from social media in vetting candidates. It’s free and easy to access, and it puts no additional burden on applicants, presuming they use social media platforms.

But the reliability of information found on social media is in question. Just 20% of CEB survey respondents said they have confidence in the quality of candidate data coming from social media sites.

Paul Vanek, CPA, CGMA, managing member of The Vanek Consultancy Group in Houston, said that although social media can be a useful recruiting tool, employers would be making a mistake if they become so dependent on it that they leave out the element of human interaction in the hiring process.

“That’s where, for me, a decision has to be made,” Vanek said. “What is that person like in person? Not how they are portraying themselves either on a piece of paper — a résumé — or on a social media site. Because you’re hiring a person as a personality, their competencies, and who they are, and you can’t get that last feeling without actually talking to somebody. And for me, I like to do that face to face.”

Global perspectives

HR professionals from emerging economies are more likely to review a candidate’s group affiliations, comments, and “likes” on social media than those in established markets, according to the survey.

Respondents overall, however, say they are less likely now to review candidates’ pictures and comments posted on sites such as Facebook. Reviews of work history, education, and recommendations are on the rise since the 2012 survey.

If recruiters do plan to vet candidates on social media, employment lawyer Blumberg advises the following:

  • Limit social media vetting to candidates for upper-level executive positions, for which companies tend to scrutinise more closely. For most positions, the dangers in having too much information outweigh the benefits, Blumberg said.
  • Always perform searches at the same point in the hiring process. This should be late in the hiring process, as one of the last steps after identifying which candidate you plan to offer the job.
  • Document what you looked at on social media and what you found.

But Blumberg said he does not advise using social media for vetting candidates at all.

“Most employers know there are lots of things you can’t ask a candidate during an interview,” Blumberg said, referring to US laws. “You can’t ask about race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation. All things you just don’t ask during an interview. And what’s the first thing you’re going to see on their social media? You’re going to see those things.”

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Ken Tysiac ( is a CGMA Magazine editorial director. Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.