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Social Vetting and the Job Search: The Hidden Dangers of Using Social Media to Screen Candidates

social media

Social media blurs the lines between our social, professional, public, and private lives in ways that continue to evolve. At the beginning of the decade, the use of social media to carry out background research on a job applicant was on the rise. However, a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management shows that today, fewer employers than ever before are using social media to screen candidates—and the reason for this is simple.

Why Don’t Employers Use Internal Committees to Screen Candidates?

As the relationship between the internet and employment develops, so too do the laws governing areas where the two intersect. One such development is that employers who carry out their own reviews of social media profiles are in danger of discovering a fact about an applicant that falls under the definition of protected status. For example, they could happen to see the candidate’s religion, country of origin, or find out about a mental health issue.

Once an employer discovers such a fact, it can be hard to prove the knowledge did not play into the hiring process, which leaves a company susceptible to legal action.

So, what do savvy companies do when they wish to ensure a new hire will not cause embarrassment with a social media post from their past? They hire a screening agency.

The Rise of Screening Agencies

Some of the companies which have, up until now, provided criminal background and credit checks for employers are now also offering social media screening. This is something of a natural progression, given that these agencies already have the processes in place to provide a legally compliant service.

Known as consumer reporting agencies, these companies provide reports covering one or many of a wide range of areas, including criminal record checks, credit reports, driving records, and social media screening.

How Are Social Media Accounts Reviewed?

If your current or prospective employer commissions a review of your social media accounts, the process looks like this:

  1. You must be informed of the employer’s intention to perform a check, and you, in turn, must provide written authorization allowing the employer to do so. Reputable consumer reporting agencies will not carry out a review until they have a copy of your approval.
  2. The employer provides the agency with a list of areas against which it would like your social media accounts assessed.
  3. The agency carries out the review and provides a report to the employer.

How This System Is Flawed

While this seems like a fairly standard process, there are a few unresolved problems. The first of which is that the employer provides the parameters against which your accounts are assessed. Some agencies are asked to look for things such as “too many selfies,” “lots of food photos,” or “boozy holiday photos.”

As an example, one agency says their repost assists recruiters by “highlighting whether an individual’s social media and online activities are:

  • Potentially damaging to their brand or reputation
  • Showcasing undesirable characteristics
  • Encouraging illegal activities
  • Connected to or supportive of banned organizations and terrorist groups
  • Linked to lobby or advocate/activist groups
  • Breaching company policy
  • Featured in adverse media and news reports
  • Leaking or likely to leak confidential information
  • Likely to have a negative impact on client or customer relations
  • Likely to expose your organization to instances of bribery or fraud
  • Validation of career history on a CV

Consequently, a report from this agency may include anything that the employer defines as an “undesirable characteristic” or “likely to have an impact on client or customer relations,” both of which are pretty broad and subjective categories.

On the other hand, another agency might only provide vetting for potentially unlawful activity or violent behavior, racism, and/or demonstrations of intolerance.

Time Periods for Online Reputation Vetting

social mediaIf you’re applying to jobs, you’ve probably gone over the last year or two of your history on social media and removed potentially offensive posts—but even that might not be enough.

The industry standard now includes reviewing up to 5 years of social media and internet history. Some agencies offer a 10-year screening window.


Learn more about how to leverage social media to find your next career opportunity.


It’s Not Just Social Media Platforms

Employers also have the option to request reviews for more than just your social media presence. While many agencies offer to search the internet for websites where you may feature or be mentioned, other agencies go a lot further.

At the click of a button, an employer can request a screening which includes a search of government and academic databases not readily available to the public, some membership-only websites and forums, and even “the deep web,” which includes webpages that aren’t indexed by most browsers.

The content you may have deleted doesn’t escape scrutiny, either. Employers can use sites that collate social media posts as they happen, which means there’s a permanent record of the posts you’ve created, including the ones that you deleted. That questionable tweet from six years ago can still come back to haunt you, even after you remove it from your profile.

The Reports

The only thing the reposts from different companies have in common is that they redact any photos, parts of pictures, or posts that could be used to identify a protected characteristic.

Some agencies provide screenshots of specific posts or the texts of any postings considered questionable.

Meanwhile, others provide a simple Pass or Fail report with minimal information so that employers can reduce their legal liability.

What Are a Jobseeker’s Rights?

When an employer hires a third party to carry out any form of background check, it must adhere to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The FCRA states that employers must inform you of their intention to use a background report. Then, before the company can go ahead, you must provide your express written consent for the check.

If the information in the report is used to take an “adverse action,” which in this case would be to turn down an applicant, the employer must provide:

  • A pre-adverse action form
  • Your own copy of the background check report
  • A copy of “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act” document

If an employer rejects your application for employment based on the results of their background check, the employer must give you a notice that includes:

  • The name and contact details of the agency that provided the background report.
  • A statement to make clear the reporting agency was not involved in the decision made by the employer.
  • Details about the candidate’s rights to dispute information in the report and to obtain an additional free report from the agency within the next 60 days.

Employers who fail to adhere to these regulations may be taken to court by the candidate as well as the Federal Trade Commission.

The Final Word

Background screening checks that include social media profiles are here to stay. If you don’t want your employer to read about your beliefs or see how you socialize, you can begin by setting your profiles from public to private, as this will afford some protection.

However, setting all your accounts to private has some downsides as well. It can limit your visibility to employers during the job search. Cautious hiring managers might also see this as a red flag.

As a jobseeker, the best thing you can do is be your professional self both online and offline and ensure nothing is public that could limit your career options. Try to maintain at least some activity on career-focused platforms such as LinkedIn, and regularly review your digital footprint to optimize your presence and reach.


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About the Author

Patti Barnes has spent much of her career working with management systems, first in the creation and implementation of management systems and later as an auditor against international standards. After a sidestep into the economic evaluation of environmental resources, and the psychology of social media, she became a consultant to both private industries and governments. Patti now spends her time between advisory roles, writing about the ways in which professionals can best position themselves for a successful career in today's complex and connected world.