When businesses bring on new employees, they bring on a new representative or face for the company. What an employee does or says online may come back to haunt a company, especially with the widespread use of social media. You also want to make sure your candidate is who they say they are, which can mean seeking online proof of their claims or background.

However, using social media to screen candidates is walking on dangerous ground, and it can turn many viable candidates off if it’s introduced early in the screening process. Companies are treading a fine line when they employ social media screening, which means in order to do so, you must have a clear understanding of the local laws. You must also take careful steps to document and delineate your process in order to avoid claims of discrimination down the line.

Beware the potential downsides

Social media screening may be illegal, depending on what state you’re operating in. Nearly 20 states ban employers from asking for access to social media content, and using it can often open a company up to accusations of discrimination. After all, social media will often reveal protected content that employers legally can’t ask about, such as a candidate’s religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. Most companies who avoid using social media do so because they fear the risk of discovering such protected information and allowing it to play a role in their decision making, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Employers also risk seeing content out of context, which can lead to incorrect conclusions about the employee or candidate. Employers must use good judgment and caution before attempting to use social media content to judge a candidate’s qualifications.

Make sure you have a legal screening policy in place

Before using social media, be sure you establish a clear screening policy. Ideally, you want a third party to review the social media accounts to shield you from accusations of discrimination, although you may likely settle for an HR manager. You may want to put the screening process later in the interview cycle, so not all candidates are subjected to it and you learn some personal information first. Although you don’t necessarily want to limit your search to someone’s LinkedIn profile, you do want to ensure you develop clear procedures and justifications for what information you will use, and why.

Your screener should carefully document all information recorded, how it was found and what interpretation can be assigned to the information. Once they present it to the hiring manager, the hiring manager can try to determine if the information collected matches up with what the candidate has claimed. For example, if a candidate says they are published, a hiring manager’s report should include documentations of those bylines and where they’re located.

What you do with this information should be documented as well - such as whether a particular post or account set off red flags and caused you to turn down a candidate, or whether activity on a particular page prompted them for further consideration. This can help you later identify whether any discrimination took place and prove that you used sound and fair judgment to determine a candidate’s qualifications based on what you found.

Using social media screening to research a candidate can assuage concerns, round out a profile or help a company determine the best fit, but you must tread carefully and be sure you only use information relevant to the hiring process.

Author's Bio: 

Jeremiah Owyang is an entrepreneur and web innovator working at the cutting edge of developing peer-to-peer networks.