April 5th, 2023 | Sterling

Social Media Screening Helps Prevent Toxic Hires and Protects the Employee Experience

For decades, background screening focused primarily on confirming candidates’ work history, education, and professional licenses, as well as reviewing criminal records and driving histories. While those are still the most common background checks utilized today, there is a new term on the rise – social media screening.

Social media screening encompasses many tools beyond those traditional background checks in evaluating suitability for a specific role and organization. While determining the ‘fit’ for an organization or role often involved interviews and references in the past, employers have utilized psychometrics and searched social media profiles to gain additional insights. The desire to leverage technology to gain more insights (while simultaneously reducing the risk of bias) is nothing new, and the role of social media is fast becoming a core component of a modern screening policy, both pre-hire and post-hire.

Criminal record checks have also been a core component of screening programs and are a perfect example of the evolution background screening has undergone of late.  Employers are recognizing that a criminal history from years (or even decades) ago may not be relevant to the role, nor a reliable indication or predictor of one’s character. Social media screening, however, can provide insights on current behavior that can identify possible workplace misconduct, allowing hiring managers to mitigate risk and determine suitability.

5 Employer Questions/Issues That Social Media Screening Can Answer

  1. Does this candidate interact well with others? A pattern of aggressive and confrontational behaviour could be a warning sign of future workplace issues.
  2. Does this candidate share and represent our organization’s values? In an increasingly polarized climate, employers seeking to build a diverse and inclusive workplace will want to ensure their candidates are a good cultural fit. A common outlook encourages people to be their authentic selves and form workplace friendships, which can boost teamwork and productivity. Social media screening can provide valuable insight into candidates’ ability to bring a positive contribution to their employer’s culture.
  3. Does the candidate’s online presence show red flags for violence, intolerance, or harassment? Despite efforts made to raise awareness, discrimination and harassment continue to be relevant workplace safety concerns. In a recent high-profile case, Activision Blizzard was forced to pay $18 million to the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission to compensate impacted former employees. While the alleged misconduct at Activision Blizzard was widespread, a single person can be enough to undermine an employer’s efforts to build a culture of trust and safety.
  4. Does the candidate’s online presence indicate substance abuse, gambling, sharing confidential company data, or other potentially high-risk behaviors? A report published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found that substance abuse had cost Canadians an estimated $20 billion in lost productivity in 2017 due to premature death, long-term disability, absenteeism and impaired job performance. Drug and gambling addictions can also lead to theft and embezzlement when employees seek supplementary funds to finance their habit.

Disclosure of confidential data can also be tremendously costly. In 2020, a nearly $200.9 million settlement was approved against Desjardins when a rogue employee with access to clients’ personal data leaked this information, causing a security breach that affected close to 9.7 million individuals in Canada and abroad. By monitoring for signs of high-risk behaviour, social media screening can protect employers from the harm that a single bad actor can do to their bottom line and reputation.

  1. Is the candidate involved in public forums related to their field?  Are they positive ambassadors for a brand or industry? While the discussion of social media screening tends to focus on its potential to unearth adverse information, the search can also provide an insightful look at signs that a candidate might be a good fit for a company. Volunteering, fundraising efforts, and other forms of positive community involvement provide “green flags” that let employers know a candidate shares their values and will make a positive contribution to their workplace culture.

With increasing frequency, organizations are turning to social media screening for these valuable insights, both pre- and post-hire. A quick search of recent headlines reveals numerous instances of athletes expressing extreme political views and anti-LGBT views not representative of one team’s culture of inclusivity.  It was also reported that Hockey Canada has added social media screening to their vetting process of athletes and team personnel.

Sport organizations are not alone in this, however. Employers of all types are deciding what role social media plays in hiring and ongoing association. Take the example of the College of Clinical Psychologists of Ontario, who are grappling with how to address one of their members sharing views online that may run counter to the code of ethics one takes as a member of that college. In their words, the situation “poses moderate risks to the public,” potentially “undermining public trust in the profession of psychology, and trust in the college’s ability to regulate the profession in the public interest.”

What are some steps that employers or regulatory bodies can take when evaluating social media screening? Compliance with federal and provincial privacy regulations should be at the forefront when screening candidates’ online activities.

Some employers may be tempted to simply enter a candidate’s name in a search engine and review the results themselves. However, this practice is fraught from an ethics and compliance perspective since candidates are not provided with the opportunity to consent to the search. In addition, informal online searches may expose you to information about candidates that should have no bearing on the job for which they are being considered. A third-party provider can help address these compliance concerns by requiring the applicant’s consent, filtering out non-relevant data and providing you with an unbiased report.

If any red flags are uncovered, you will likely want to consider what level of risk they pose. For example, if there are red flags on a candidate’s Twitter account, consult with internal stakeholders to review the possible risk level and determine if mitigating circumstances exist. Was the content in question an original tweet, a re-tweet, or a like?  Does that difference matter to you?  Was there only one red flag, or were there dozens of tweets related to racism or drug use, indicating a pattern of behaviour in a particular area over time?

Once you determine the risk level, work internally and consult with legal counsel on how best to proceed. You may find that holding a conversation with the employee is best. One resolution might be having the employee review your social media policy and agree to remove the content. Employers could also choose to continue to monitor and evaluate the activity for trends, ask references about concerning content uncovered during a pre-hire screening, or even evaluate how other candidates with similar red flags performed once hired.

One fact remains clear: social media screening is rapidly becoming a core component of enhancd character screening, both pre-hire and post-hire. Many employers are still deciding what role this plays and how the information obtained can lead to better hiring decisions. However, the use of a third party to locate relevant information, while shielding employers from irrelevant details, is critical for a compliant program that adds value to the onboarding process.

If you have questions about social media screening, don’t hesitate to reach out to Sterling Backcheck.

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.