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ESR Background Screening Trend 6 for 2011: Using Social Network Sites Such as Facebook to Screen Job Candidates Increases Legal Risk for Employers

By Lester Rosen, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) President & Thomas Ahearn, ESR News Editor

Employment Screening Resources (ESR) Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Pre-Employment Background Screening’ for 2011

Trend No. 6: Using Social Network Sites Such as Facebook to Screen Job Candidates Increases Legal Risk for Employers

A background screening trend that recently emerged where employers used social network sites such as Facebook – the most popular social networking site with over 500 million active users worldwide – to run ‘Social Network Background Checks’ on job candidates should become even more prevalent in 2011, and increase the legal risks for employers.

No discussion about background screening these days is complete without an analysis of how the Internet is used for hiring. From social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter to blogs, videos on YouTube, and business connection sites like LinkedIn, employers focus with laser-like intensity on how to use the Internet for background screening job candidates. What is sometimes overlooked in the rush to use the Internet for background screening is the one question employers need to ask: What are the legal risks in using the Internet for hiring?

The answer involves issues of discrimination, authenticity, and privacy. If employers insist on using social network sites for background screening, then they must realize that much of the ‘new media’ available to them for background screening is still covered by current employment regulations.

“Employers and recruiters have discovered a treasure trove of information on potential job applicants in social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other online sources,” says Lester Rosen, founder of Employment Screening Resources (ESR) and author of The Safe Hiring Manual – The Complete Guide to Keeping Criminals, Imposters, and Terrorists Out of Your Workplace,’ the first comprehensive book on employment screening. “However, the use of these sites can present legal risks, including privacy and discrimination issues.”

Employers care about the content on social networking sites used by job candidates. A 2009 survey from leading job networking site CareerBuilder.com that found nearly half of employers use social networking sites to screen job candidates, more than double the amount from 2008. The survey of more than 2,600 hiring managers revealed that 45 percent of employers used social networking sites to research candidates and 35 percent of employers rejected applicants based on what was uncovered on social networking sites. Of these 35 percent:

  • 53 percent cited provocative/inappropriate photographs or information.
  • 44 percent cited content about drinking or using drugs.
  • 35 percent cited bad-mouthing of previous employers, co-workers or clients.
  • 29 percent cited poor communication skills.
  • 26 percent cited discriminatory comments.
  • 24 percent cited misrepresentation of qualifications.
  • 20 percent cited sharing confidential information from a previous employer. 

Allegations of discrimination are one critical area where employers can find themselves in hot water when utilizing social network sites for background screening. Employers may be accused of disregarding candidates who are members of protected classes by passing over the online profiles of people based on prohibited criteria such as race, creed, color, nationality, sex, religious affiliation, marital status, or medical condition. There may even be photos showing a physical condition protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or showing candidates wearing garb suggesting their religious affiliation or national origin. This issue is sometimes referred to as Too Much Information (TMI). Once employers are aware that an individual is a member of a protected group, it is difficult to claim that they can “un-ring the bell” and forget they saw such information.

Another issue facing employers using the Internet to source is authenticity. In other words, if negative information about a candidate is found on the Internet or a social networking site, how is the employer supposed to verify that the information is accurate, up-to-date, authentic, and if it even belongs to or applies to the candidate in question?

Another problem concerning Internet sourcing and screening yet to be fully explored by the courts is the issue of privacy. Contrary to popular opinion, everything online is not necessarily fair game. Certainly, people choosing not to adjust their privacy settings so that their social network sites are easily available on Internet searches may have a more difficult time arguing that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, the terms of use for many social network sites prohibit commercial use and many users literally believe that their social network site is exactly that – a place to freely socialize. The argument would be that in their circles it is the community norm, and a generally accepted attitude, that their pages are off limits to unwelcome intruders, even if the door is left wide open. After all, burglars can hardly defend themselves on the basis that the front door to the house they stole from was unlocked so they felt they could just walk in.
 
Yet another issue is legal off-duty conduct.  A number of states protect workers engaged in legal off-duty conduct. If such a search reveals legal off duty conduct, a candidate can claim they were the victims of illegal discrimination 
 
All of these concerns are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social network background checks.  Employers need to be very careful when it comes to harvesting information about job candidates from the internet.  Employers need to know how to protect themselves against allegations of discrimination and issues with authenticity and privacy if no further action is taken after the discovery on the Internet that a person is a member of a protected class or when finding negative information.  How and when an employer obtains such information is critical.

For employers wanting to use social network sites to screen a candidate, the safest path when using the Internet is to obtain consent from the candidate first and only search once there has been a conditional job offer to that candidate. This procedure helps ensure that impermissible information is not considered before the employer evaluates a candidate using permissible tools such as interviews, job-related employment tests, references from supervisors, and a background check.

At that point, after using permissible screening tools, the reason for employers to search social networking sites would be to ensure that there is nothing that would eliminate the person for employment, such as saying nasty things about the employer’s firm, or if the applicant engaged in behavior that would damage the company, hurt business interests, or be inconsistent with business needs.

In addition, employers in the sourcing stage may want to consider having a clear internal policy and documented training that Internet sourcing is not being used in violation of federal and state discrimination laws and that only factors that are valid predictors of job performance will be considered, taking into account the job description, and the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for the position. It also helps to have objective and documented methods and metrics on how to source and screen on the Internet.

Another method employers may use is to have a person in-house not connected to any hiring decisions review social network sites, in order to ensure impermissible background screening information is not given to the decisions maker. The in-house background screening should also have training in the non-discriminatory use of background screening information, knowledge of the job desiccation and use objective methods that are the same for all candidates for each type of position.  That way, only permissible information is transmitted to the person that is making the decision.  Again, this is best done post-offer but pre-hire and with consent. An employer may be looking for online information concerning upon job suitability.  For example, did the potential employee say derogatory things about past employers or co-workers, or demonstrate that they are not the best candidate for the job. 

Although employers may request that background screening firms perform this function, there are a number of drawbacks. First, a background screening firm does not have the same in-depth knowledge the employer has of the details of the position.  In addition, if a social network background check is done by a background screening firm, the search falls under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) which requires a background screening firm to maintain reasonable procedures for maximum possible accuracy.  Because a background screening firm has no way of knowing if the online information is accurate, it is difficult for background screening firms to perform this service consistent with the FCRA.  In other words, due to the FCRA, background screening firms may not be best suited to perform these types of ‘social network background check’ searches.

On the other hand, failure to utilize these social networking sites when a search could have revealed relevant information could expose an employer to claims of negligent hiring. 

The bottom line is that employers must approach using social network background screening with caution before assuming everything is fair game in the pursuit of job candidates or otherwise face potential legal landmines that could destroy their business.

To read more ESR News articles about using social network sites for screening, visit http://www.esrcheck.com/wordpress/tag/social-networking-sites/.  Learn more about Employment Screening Resources (ESR) at http://www.ESRcheck.com.

Employment Screening Resources (ESR) – a leading provider of background checks accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) – is releasing the ESR Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Pre-Employment Background Screening’ for 2011 throughout December. This is the Sixth of the Top Ten Trends ESR will be tracking in 2011. To see an updated list of ESR’s ‘Top Ten Trends in Pre-Employment Background Screening’ for 2011, visit: http://www.esrcheck.com/Top-Ten-Trends-In-Background-Screening-2011.php.

Founded in 1996 in the San Francisco Bay area, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) is the company that wrote the book on background checks with ‘The Safe Hiring Manual’ by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen. Employment Screening Resources is accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC) for proving compliance with the Background Screening Agency Accreditation Program (BSAAP). ESR was the third U.S. background check firm to be Safe Harbor’ Certified for data privacy protection. To learn more, visit http://www.ESRcheck.com or contact Jared Callahan, ESR Director of Client Relations, at 415.898.0044 or jcallahan@ESRcheck.com.