July 20th, 2021 | Iain Murray, Vertical Leader, Sterling Backcheck

Incorporating Social Media Into Your Background Screening Program

With more than 25 million Canadians currently on social media, a growing number of HR professionals are turning to social network background checks to screen their potential employees. But with increased searches come questions around ethics, unconscious bias, and risk mitigation. In our recent webinar, The Role of Social Media in Background Screening, I sat down with Ben Mones, CEO of Fama, a leader in social media screening automation & AI, and my colleague Shaun Ryan, to discuss the role of social media screening, industry trends, as well as best practices around social media search customization. The webinar resulted in a lively discussion and numerous questions that I will address here.

The Need for Social Media Screening

Let’s start by discussing the need for social media screening. Social media screening addresses potential gaps that may not be addressed with the traditional background screening. According to Statista Canada, out of nearly 38 million Canadians, 34 million are active internet users. Furthermore, as most of the workforce shifts to be dominated by millennials and younger, it’s important to remember that this group of the population have built their lives online and have grown up developing their identity online. As such, social media is not just a hobby, but rather a big part of everyday lives.

So what are you really searching for when you’re running a social media check? The short answer is publicly available online beaviour that may not align with your organization’s values or culture. The goal is NOT to pass personal judgment, but to utilize a third-party to seek out specific problematic activities.

Let’s explore some examples. If you’re hiring employees to be ambassadors of your brand, social media screening is an ideal opportunity to evaluate their behaviour for such a role. Searching for risky beahviour using artificial intelligence, language processing, and image recognition standard for this process. The search flags pre-determined factors and the frequency of which the candidate is using them, and then generates a report that provides context on its usage. The search expands beyond just social media to include all web activity for that candidate.

If you’re not currently running a social media search, there can be potential risk, especially if your brand is well-known in the industry. For example, in June 2021, Google pulled their Chief Diversity Officer, Kamau Bobb, from his position after his blog post with anti-Semitic remarks resurfaced. As one of the largest and well-known brands, the story received a lot of attention both in the news and on social media. This could have easily been avoided had Google done their due diligence.

Other recent examples include a Cricket player in the UK whose offensive past tweets were dug up, and the many rioters who stormed the US Capitol in January 2021 and were “outed” after internet sleuths publicized their identities, via social media.

Creating a Balance Between Risk Mitigation and Removing Unconscious Bias

When talking about social media searches, I’m often asked about the fear of being biased. So, how can an organization ensure that the searches are not biased? There are at least two parts to this answer.

First, organizations can reduce bias by establishing consistency. The searches should be designed to give everyone equal footing. Use the same keywords and employ the same policy for anyone working in the same role. In fact, creating a list of terms relevant to your organization is key. If you’re on the lookout for a particular issue — be it substance abuse/drug use, political extremism, or racist ideology/hate speech, keyword customization can help identify these. Keywords should be tailored to your organization, the roles you’re hiring for, and in most cases in Canada, bilingual.

Second, keep in mind that by running social media searches, you’re not making a judgment on whether to hire/fire someone per se, but discovering content/behaviour detrimental to your organization/brand that needs to be taken into account. This is an important distinction. For a new hire, a red flag may not be an outright “fire”, but it may corroborate some of the “smoke” raised by references or other screening elements during the hiring process. It’s an opportunity to evaluate a candidate on the whole picture of who they are and how they will work for and represent your brand. What if one of their references raised concerns about sexist attitudes towards female colleagues, and social media unveiled a litany of misogynistic tweets? For current employees, any such content uncovered provides an opportunity to engage with the employee directly, reminding them of your organization’s social media policy, values, and culture.

Keep in mind, the question of hiring will always remain a human process. The searches are simply aimed at providing the organization with relevant insights about the candidate. It is then up to the organization to make the final decision on a variety of factors. Social media searches are not designed to tell if the person is good or bad, but to provide insights on integrity/brand awareness relevant to the job.

Lastly, it’s incredibly important to partner with an organization that has industry experience. For example, Sterling Backcheck partners with Fama, an organization that has a system in place to help ensure all candidates are treated fairly. Fama’s process helps remove unconscious bias by sharing the information you’d like to know about, minimazing your organization’s exposure to information you don’t need — such as age, race, sexual orientation, or other elements that shouldn’t weigh into a hiring decision.

What’s In The Search?

Once you run a social media search on a candidate, you will receive a report which will contain posts made by the candidate on their publicly available profile as well as re-shared and liked posts. The report will also pick up images in addition to text. This report can be customized and filtered for the type of information you’d like to see.

If social media is part of the pre-hire process , then your candidates are likely to ask questions about privacy. I’ll reiterate my earlier point on context and relevancy. If you’re only highlighting information that is job relevant, making them aware that the check is being run, and making sure they have an opportunity to contest results should they decide to do that, then you’ve already taking a more privacy-focused approach than just casually reviewing social media profiles on your own.

Volunteers and Temporary Workforce

I’m often asked which roles should have social media checks incorporated into the screening process. That answer can depend upon your budget, but there is certainly risk with nearly any hire. I’ve seen high profile brand ambassadors such as star athletes or senior executives sharing hateful and politically charged content, and warehouse workers tagging their employer in posts tampering with the product. I’ve also seen software developers share company trade secrets and product roadmaps via twitter, and new hires boast about their new job at a new company moments after tweeting how they shoplifted from a store.

For your temporary workforce, position details may come into play. During seasonal hiring for retailers, it might make more sense to run the searches on key holders that are opening and closing the store rather than a salesperson on the floor.

The bottom line is, any hire can pose a risk to your brand, but you can evaluate how great that risk is and decide to screen for certain roles only, or a random sampling of people within that role. The specifics can be customized per your organization’s specific challenges and needs, ensuring you hire with confidence and fill roles based on a foundation of trust and safety.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s no doubting that Covid-19 has changed the online world. The pandemic has led to a 70% increase in internet usage and 43% shift in social media posting. There has been a significant societal shift of people choosing where they work based on the culture, perception, and alignment with their own values. People care about that more than they have in the past.

Social media searches allow you to be ahead of the story. For brands that are in the spotlight especially, finding a social media tweet can be damaging. Incorporating the searches into your background screening policy allows you to protect your company’s brand and reputation.

Still have questions? Contact us.

This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.