With constant access to technology, it has become second nature to use the Internet to find out more about people. Do they use Instagram, what do they tweet about and what do they like on Facebook?


But companies hiring employees should resist that urge. Visiting social media sites can expose them to information that cannot be used legally in applicant screening. Even if the information is not used as criteria, the fact that they were exposed to it can cause legal issues for the recruiter and the company.


And as social media use becomes more prevalent, there are a number of factors to consider when it comes to using it for applicant screening.

Why it is an issue

One major pitfall of social media screening is exposure to an applicant’s demographic or religious information, which is unlawful to use for hiring purposes and can lead to discrimination charges. This information may include the applicant’s race, national origin, age, marital status or religion.


Judging a candidate by his or her social media presence can also prove to be an inaccurate reflection of work ethic. As the name implies, social media such as Facebook and Twitter were designed for social use and not necessarily to display professional skills and work samples. In addition, not every job applicant has a social media account, which can create an unfair advantage for candidates who are on social media.


Even if social media screening happens inadvertently, it can have a negative impact on diversity at a company. A 2013 Carnegie Mellon University study found companies that use social media for screening are more inclined to discriminate against prospective employees, whether by race, religion, politics or other protected characteristics.


There are also legal implications related to privacy. More than half of the states prohibit employers from taking employment action against an employee, or potential employee, for any lawful conduct that occurs on his or her own time.   In addition, many states prohibit employers from requesting or requiring that applicants provide login information to social media accounts.


Because the Internet will continue to play a large role in everyday life, following are some tips for using social media to screen job candidates:


  • Hire a third party to conduct the social media search. Third-party companies or persons can filter through discriminatory information such as sexuality, religion or disabilities and omit that information when they report back to the hiring manager. This way the employee responsible for making the hiring decision does not face legal scrutiny for adverse action based on a potential employee’s private information. If using a third party to conduct a background check, including a social media check, the employer must notify the applicant and obtain written permission prior to conducting the background check under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.


  • Don’t rely on a company’s social media policy. Although many companies may already have a social media policy in place for employees, this policy only applies to current employees within the company, not prospective candidates.


  • Never ask candidates for access to their private pages. Respect an applicant’s privacy settings by ensuring the social media search only reviews publicly available content. Given the parameters of privacy law, employers should never ask for login information or for a walk-through of a potential employee’s social media pages.


In short, it is best to refrain from using social media to screen job candidates. The process may open the door to lawsuits and harm a company’s reputation. However, employers who find social media screening necessary should be sure to define the process and obtain written permission if an employer uses a third party to conduct a background check.


Insperity, a trusted advisor to America’s best businesses for more than 29 years, provides an array of human resources and business solutions designed to help improve business performance. Insperity® Business Performance Advisors offer the most comprehensive suite of products and services available in the marketplace. Insperity delivers administrative relief, better benefits, reduced liabilities and a systematic way to improve productivity through its premier Workforce Optimization® solution. Additional company offerings include Human Capital Management, Payroll Services, Time and Attendance, Performance Management, Organizational Planning, Recruiting Services, Employment Screening, Financial Services, Expense Management, Retirement Services and Insurance Services. Insperity business performance solutions support more than 100,000 businesses with over 2 million employees.  With 2014 revenues of $2.4 billion, Insperity operates in 57 offices throughout the United States. For more information, call 800-465-3800 or visit http://www.insperity.com.