Why Social Media Background Checks Aren’t Effective

August 20, 2018
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In the 21st Century, it is commonplace for candidates to have at least one method of social media. Whilst many candidates take care to set their social media settings to private, many employers still look into prospective candidates’ social media pages to decide whether or not to offer the prospective candidate a position. Although many see this as a natural step in this day and age, these checks are not as effective as many employers think. If you’re considering adding a social media background checking step or if you want to audit the effectiveness of your current process, here are the top problems that are most likely to occur.

Social Media background checks don’t predict on-the-job performance 

From both a business and legal perspective it makes no sense to use any screening process that doesn’t accurately predict on-the-job success or failure. And, unfortunately, most social media background checks are done using an ad-hoc, non-standardized process created by individual recruiters or hiring managers. Currently, there is no publicly available business or academic data on the effectiveness of social media background checking. Without data, a background checker can’t even accurately determine which of the many social media sites and what types of information (photos, alcohol/drug use, language) turn out to be valid screening criteria. Since social media background checks are mostly used to reject candidates, because those who are rated negatively are never hired, it’s almost impossible to tell whether a rejected individual candidate would have actually failed if they were hired. A superior approach to finding out if social media assessments are good predictors would be to assign each finalist a social media numerical score. Record it but don’t use it to make your hiring decision. After six months on the job, determine if there is a correlation between low social media scores and poor on-the-job performance.

A non-standardized process produces inconsistent results 

Most recruiters and hiring managers use their own self-developed process for social media background checks. And without a uniform defined process, protocols, checklists, and performance metrics, there can be no consistent assessment of candidates. Legally, this means that the process will not be reliable. Without guidelines, in addition to assessing nonjob-related factors, background screeners may view information on nonstandard social media sites beyond LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Discriminatory information will be seen and possibly used

During social media searches it’s almost impossible to avoid viewing off-limit hiring information that covers factors like religion, sexual orientation, political affiliations, and family status. And if the candidate has not yet been interviewed, the screener will likely see gender, race, age, and disability. Once this type of information has been viewed, the firm will now have the burden of having to prove that it did not use this off-limits information to make its hiring decision.

Outside-of-work-hours activities and information will be seen

Of all the social media sites, only LinkedIn focuses on job-related information. All candidate screening should focus on assessing information related to the job. Most of the information that is found on social media sites covers areas that are “social,” which means that they cover activities mostly outside of work. For example, screeners often reject candidates based on the use or perceived overuse of alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco. These activities may be perfectly legal outside of work. And, if those doing the screening have strong religious, moral, or political convictions, they may screen out individuals for non-job-related reasons that they don’t agree with, including free-speech political activities, partying, and risqué behavior. High-risk hobbies and revealed medical conditions may, unfortunately, also be used as a criterion to screen out individuals. In some states like California, it may be illegal to use even valid background information that is more than seven years old.

Almost all Social Media background checkers are untrained 

The hiring managers or employees who conduct most social media background checks are often not trained in the proper approach and how to avoid the common problems. And, because most candidate rejection decisions are made quickly, the likelihood of unconscious biases impacting the decision is great. If you do provide education or training, make sure that the checkers learn to discount information that is more than three years old.

In Conclusion

After closely examining this “new addition” to the reference and background check process, social media background checks have numerous legal and operational problems even when they are done correctly. Social media background checks are only done once at the time of hire. Without continuous checking, once they become an employee, there is a chance that your employee will do something later that you might actually need to know about. As a result of its many weaknesses, social media background checks almost always have a negative return on investment. However, if you don’t have the authority to stop it, there are some action steps that could improve its effectiveness. To read further reasons why social media checks are not an effective tool and to improve the process if your company does them anyway, please read Dr. John Sullivan‘s fascinating article exploring the faults and implications on social media background checks from ERE here.


Merito Group is a small women-owned business providing excellence in outsourced talent acquisition solutions including retained executive search, RPO, and consulting services. Looking to hire exceptional talent? Contact us by email or 703-734-6340. To view our current career opportunities click here.

Copyright Merito Group LLC © 2019

Copyright Merito Group LLC © 2019