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Background checks in the age of social media

Nov. 4, 2013

The subject of background checks in trucking is a tricky one to say the least; especially when it comes to the touchy subject of drug testing and how new legislation might affect such testing rules as they relate to pre-employment screening of truck drivers.

Yet as I noted in a post last week, there’s a new twist being applied to the arena of employee screening from the rise of social media not only in trucking but in the business world as a whole.

Now, though, many companies are starting to go a step further by using social media searches as part of their pre-employment screening/background check processes – a tactic that many experts should be approached cautiously.

“Online search engines and social networks are amazing tools that have literally changed the world, but the laws regulating fairness in hiring practices have remained the same,” noted Paul Beauchemin, founder of PI Profits Agency.

“Hiring managers must therefore tread lightly when using social media and search engines as portals to information on candidates, applicants and current employees,” he cautioned. “On the other hand, offline criminal background checks have a long history, and best practices surrounding them have undergone decades of refinement.”

Beauchemin emphasized that criminal background checks and, in some cases, credit checks have long been among the standard practices of human resources departments. But as social media and the web allow people to extend their “identities” into a virtual space, hiring managers are beginning to see these avenues as new screening “modalities.”

Yet he warns that due diligence is necessary on the digital frontier as while these technologies are powerful, they are not without risk.

Beauchemin pointed to CareerBuilder's 2012 survey of 2,303 hiring managers to show that 37% of companies turn to social media as a screening tool for potential job candidates, though that number is actually down from 45% in 2009, perhaps demonstrating that companies have become more cautious about using social media as part of the candidate search or selection process.

Not surprisingly, LinkedIn is far and away the most commonly referenced social networking site in both the recruitment and screening, but even here there are pitfalls to avoid, he said.

“The basic tenets of fairness in hiring are the same regardless of technology: race, religion, marital status and political orientation, among many other factors, cannot be considered in the employment decision,” Beauchemin stated.

Another problem with the major social media networks is that they're not representative of the diversity in America. Latinos, African-Americans and the economically disadvantaged are underrepresented on these networks, which could unfairly skew a candidate search.

“Therefore, hiring managers should still cast a wide net as possible,” he said. “My advice is not to be too dazzled with the pipeline of information served up by search engines and social media. Much of it is noise, i.e. irrelevant to the task of hiring a qualified candidate. More importantly, using privileged information to make a decision raises the specter of legal issues.”

Still, background checks are becoming de rigueur in many parts of the business world, with those in charge of pre-employment screening always on the lookout for new data streams to help illuminate the history of potential hires.

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management, for example, indicates than two-thirds of the 406 organizations it surveyed in 2012 responded that criminal background checks are standard for all job candidates.

“The rationale for criminal background checks is easy to understand; organizations need to protect themselves from liability while also providing a safe work environment,” Beauchemin noted. “The investigation into social media activity, though, opens up a troubling grey area. The most obvious conundrum facing hiring managers and screeners is that information culled from online social networks may only have a marginal relationship, if any, to a position's actual duties.

Yet it’s that concern that may eventually overcome any hesitancy to use social media searches as part of the pre-employment screening process. Take HireRight’s 2013 Employment Screening Benchmarking Report, which revealed that 61% of employers use, or plan to use, social media to help them recruit candidates, though only a little more than a fifth (21%) use or plan to use social media as part of the background check – a slight drop from the previous year’s rate of 24%.

Employers’ reluctance to use social media as part of the background screening process may be due to a number of factors, including a deficit of established legal guidance, concerns over candidate privacy, and uncertainty regarding best practices around the issue, HireRight noted.

That said, HireRight suggested some best practices organizations should take into account if they already use, or consider using, social media as part of the employee background screening process:

  • Understand the Risks: If a hiring manager views an individual’s social media profile and the profile indicates that person is part of a protected class (e.g., age, race, disability, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.), then the organization may be at risk for a claim of hiring discrimination if an offer is not made. Social media background screening risks are compounded because most hiring managers have easy access to social media networks and most web browsers capture and store viewing history. Employers may consider limiting hiring decision maker’s use of social media, and educating all human resources personnel about the inherent risks of social media background screening. Consult with your legal counsel to assess and mitigate your organization’s social media background screening risk. Consider the on-site privacy policies of sites like Facebook and Twitter in your approach.
  • Develop a Policy: A written employment screening policy is the foundation of every successful background screening program. A policy protects an organization from legal risks by outlining background screening practices and provides guidance to human resources personnel who are conducting background checks. Of those employers who do use social media during background screening, 76% do not have any defined policy regarding this practice. Without a social media screening policy in place, an organization may be exposed to liability risks, such as discrimination lawsuits. Failing to address social media background screening also means that hiring managers may be using subjective information found online to inappropriately limit their hiring options.
  • Watch the Legislative and Legal Landscape: As the practice of social media background screening becomes more common, stay tuned to legal and legislative developments around the issue. There are several existing federal laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Stored Communications Act, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, that may protect workers against discrimination and privacy violations related to social media. A handful of states have also enacted legislation barring employers from accessing workers’ private accounts. Legal precedent is still evolving in this area and, with the help of their legal counsel, employers should stay apprised of future developments.

“Employers today are at a unique crossroads of leveraging the ever-growing phenomenon of social media for identifying and recruiting future employees,” HireRight noted in its survey. “Yet they still remain leery of the technology’s role in the background screening process.”

Something to consider as background-check and pre-employment screening issues only continue to consume more of the trucking industry’s time. 

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