Guest feature: The risks of social media screening

Guest feature: The risks of social media screening

Currently, HR teams across the country are using social channels, both formally and informally, as a primary means of assessing potential candidates.

Currently, HR teams across the country are using social channels, both formally and informally, as a primary means of assessing potential candidates. While it’s undeniable that these platforms can offer hiring teams a huge amount of insight on applicants, for many companies, the etiquette and ethics of using these channels is still ambiguous. With considerable risks to be aware of, and a large amount of professionals unwittingly breaking the rules, it’s crucial that HR professionals are up to date on acceptable usage of these channels. So, before diving into the social media of a potential candidate, here some key things to be aware of.




Before any company carries out social media checks, having a clear, consistent and detailed screening policy is essential. Despite a huge 90% of HR teams using social media to assess candidates, only 40% claim to perform social media checks as part of a structured programme. Further research conducted during a Sterling webinar suggested that 62% of HR and recruitment professionals stated that they did not understand the risks associated with searching a candidate’s social profiles. What this suggests is that a sizeable number of hiring managers are screening candidates ‘unofficially’, without any clear guidelines or processes. This is something that should be avoided at all costs, as it opens the door to not only ineffective screening, but also potential illegal, or unethical behaviour. Any written screening policy should give HR teams, managers, and everyone involved in the hiring process a clear understanding of what information they should be searching for each role, along with knowledge of the risks surrounding unconscious biases and training on relevant legislation such as the Equality Act and GDPR.  As long as HR teams are clear on the purpose for carrying out screening and logging data (which will most likely fall under the legitimate interest category), negative consequences can be avoided.


Protected characteristics and GDPR


The main risk that HR teams expose themselves to when conducting background checks is that a candidate claims that a decision was made not to recruit them based upon ‘protected characteristics’. These are categories which were laid out in the Equality Act 2010, and are illegal to discriminate against. If it can be proved that a decision was made in any part because of disability, gender reassignment, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, businesses could land themselves in serious trouble, with potential penalties including fines, lawsuits and, of course, huge damage to employer brand.  Furthermore, unlike unfair dismissal cases, there is no limit to the fines that can be applied for a breach of the Equality Act. As such, it’s essential that protected characteristics on social media aren’t influencing hiring decisions. While this isn’t easy, there are certain methods available to help HR teams do this, and at Sterling, we run background check services purposely obscuring protected characteristics from candidate profiles in order to remove the risk of bias influencing the process.


Seeking consent first


While it may seem obvious, something often overlooked is the simple process of seeking out permission to search a candidate’s social media. However, this is a crucial step to take. Employers should always notify candidates before viewing their social media channels, and make candidates aware of exactly what their consent means, what information they are giving access to and how that information will be used. This will also offer you the opportunity to review your own background check processes and assess whether you are searching social media for the right reasons. This is a practice that will go a long way to creating a positive candidate experience, which is undeniably extremely valuable to building a competitive employee brand. A bad candidate experience has been shown to be extremely damaging for firms, with one example from Virgin Media where the company calculated that is was losing £4.4 million a year from candidates that had a bad experience. In addition to this, research from the Talent Board shows that 33% of candidates with a negative experience intended to share it via social media, and 41% of candidates intended to take their loyalty elsewhere. As a consequence, informing candidates as to exactly which channels you wish to screen and allowing them to decide for themselves what they want to be private or public on their profiles will reflect very well upon your company. The overwhelming majority of candidates did not create social media profiles with this type of scrutiny in mind – even if the information is freely available to HR teams – and therefore should be given advanced warning.


It’s important to get right


Ultimately, with 45 million people in the UK alone using it, and 3.2 billion users worldwide spending an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes per day on social networks, this type of screening is bound to continue to become a crucial part of hiring, and something that will be essential in engaging the best quality talent and reducing the risks associated with hiring. As a result, HR teams shouldn’t allow any complacency. Employing social media checks in an unstructured manner is not only an inefficient strategy, but also something that could land your company in heaps of trouble.  By strictly sticking to a few rules, and ensuring that everyone involved is on the same page, HR teams can enjoy all the benefits of social media screening – without the risk of harming a business’s most important asset – its people.

This piece was authored by Steve Smith, managing director of Sterling EMEA.