4 Social Media Red Flags When Hiring

#background checks
by Caitlin Trent


A 2020 study of over 500 companies conducted by The Market found that 90% of companies look at candidates’ social media before making a hire. “More than half of employers have found content on social media that caused them NOT to hire a candidate,” according to a CareerBuilder Survey

But what should employers be looking for when digging through different social media pages, and what is a dealbreaker for a candidate’s social media presence? Is it possible to look for the wrong things and violate privacy or ethical boundaries? How can a company build a process around social media checks so they are more fair and consistent? These 4 tips can help guide employers trying to answer these questions about social media red flags.

Social Media Red Flags or Red Herrings

Each company should first create a framework to determine the lens they will use for weighing different aspects of social media checks. This should happen before they hire a company to conduct the check and return results. Company culture can help determine what constitutes a red flag and what doesn’t. For example, an interfaith nonprofit may have very different standards than a progressive start up company for what is acceptable in social media posts. However, hiring teams should really scrutinize if something is truly a red flag based on consistent company policy, or if their decisions are being made based on inconsistent metrics or internalized biases.

According to CareerBuilder, employers have made adverse hiring decisions around social media checks for the following reasons:   

  • Job candidate posted provocative or inappropriate photographs, videos or information: 40 %
  • Job candidate posted information about them drinking or using drugs: 36%
  • Job candidate had discriminatory comments related to race, gender, religion, etc.: 31%
  • Job candidate was linked to criminal behavior: 30%
  • Job candidate lied about qualifications: 27%
  • Job candidate had poor communication skills: 27%
  • Job candidate bad-mouthed their previous company or fellow employee: 25%
  • Job candidate's screen name was unprofessional: 22%
  • Job candidate shared confidential information from previous employers: 20%
  • Job candidate lied about an absence: 16%
  • Job candidate posted too frequently: 12%


Businesses should be clear why they are making these types of adverse decisions, and the best practice is to ensure they have a good reason behind it.  For example, if a job candidate posts too frequently, is that a reasonable red flag that should prevent hiring? Does a screen name or poor communication skills on their personal page have anything to do with their qualifications for a position? Companies should clarify metrics for what constitutes a red flag and why, and then they should employ these standards evenly across candidate checks. 


4 Types of Relevant Red Flags on Social Media

There are four types of red flags that may genuinely disqualify a candidate from hire if discovered on social media platforms. These should be integrated into broader company policies upon hire, as well. 

1. Discriminatory Comments: Hate Speech, Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, etc.

In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that employers can fire someone for comments that are made on social media, even if those comments don’t directly relate to the job or coworkers. A company will need to decide where to draw the line on social media content that is discriminatory, but it is clear they need to determine that line.  This should be designated in a company policy and applied consistently.  

For instance, hiring managers will need to decide if liking a meme that could be construed as bigotry is a strong enough reason to disqualify a candidate. This can say something about the values a candidate may bring into the work place, but it’s clearly different from someone who consistently espouses white supremacist views or has attended discirminatory events like the January 6th Capitol Riot, which was bragged about on social media.

Roy Mauer, talent acquisition expert, helps distinguish: "If I'm recruiting, and I find someone who has engaged in clearly racist speech—something that, if it happened in the workplace, there would be a complaint registered in HR or a charge filed with the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]—then I'm concerned about hiring that person." 

A company could also ask more questions in an interview in a more ambiguous instance such as liking a meme, but they may opt to entirely bar a candidate from employment regardless of other qualifications if egregious instances appear in a check. Employers who are clear about the extent of their company values--and the reasoning behind them--will be in a better position to determine when they should seek more information and when the candidate is likely to make a workplace unsafe for other team members.


2. Lies About Qualifications or Plagiarizing 

Social media checks, much like employment and educational background checks, can provide another verification point for qualifications.  An applicant may lie on a resume in a manner their social media can refute, or they may make statements on social media that don’t line up with a resume. These kinds of lies can help a company understand a candidate and possibly determine if the candidate does not meet the qualifications for a role. 

Recruiting company, Virtual Vocations says, “You’re asking for trouble if you boast about professional achievements on social media that you cannot support with qualifications on your resume. By looking at your online profiles, recruiters and employers can verify things like your education history and work experience, all the while getting a better understanding of your personality and interests.” 

Similarly, if a candidate is consistently plagiarizing on social media, this is a red flag. Plagiarizing others’ creative content speaks to a prospect’s integrity, whether or not they take ownership of other’s work, and what kind of team dynamic they may create. 


3. "Unprofessional" Behavior - But Be Careful!

The separation between professional and private life has become exponentially blurrier with social media, but it can still be useful for companies trying to understand different candidates. However, companies need a clear way to express what they mean by professional, or they risk discriminatory practices based on cultural and other kinds of differences.  

For instance, candidates who don’t try to differentiate between their professional and private social media pages may present a red flag.  Profile pictures, what people are sharing, and the types of posts on different platforms should all be factored. For instance, posts on LinkedIn should be weighted differently in a hiring metric than a personal Facebook page that may turn up old behaviours, youthful mistakes, or personal opinions that are clearly marked as such. 

Marc Prosser, co-founder of Fit Small Business, explains, “If your profile pic on LinkedIn was taken in the blue light of a dance club, what does that say about you as a potential hire? You’re not only making it clear that you like to party, [but] you’re making it clear that you can’t separate the party from your professional life. If that’s how you treat a LinkedIn profile, how will you act in front of a client? I’m not really worried about my employees’ private lives, but I do consider how candidates present themselves in public.” 

Unprofessionalism can include posts about drug or alcohol abuse that an employer finds worrying for the needs of a given role, such as driving heavy machinery. Hiring teams should ask themselves: Is the candidate publicly portraying an integral, public part of their life in a way that truly demonstrates they may not be up for a job, or does the candidate simply have a different private lifestyle that members of a hiring team may not be part of themselves--but has no bearing on the ability to perform a given role? Thoughtful social media checks can help clarify this.

4. Bad Mouthing Past and Present Employers and Coworkers

Negatively or explicitly posting about a current or past employer may be a red flag.  It can signal that someone feels comfortable sharing a company’s internal business, and a company can make the assumption that the behavior is likely to continue if this individual is hired. If these kinds of posts are discovered in a social media check, employers should factor how bad the post was, how consistent it was, and how long ago it happened. 

“If potential employees don’t mind publicly ranting about their current or former employer, they might not think twice about sharing confidential information from a new employer, either. To protect the privacy of your business and employees, it’s best to avoid these applicants,” says Recruiter company, Talent Management

Employers should be mindful of exceptions, however. If a candidate is speaking out against worker abuse, workplace discrimination, or prior or current employer harassment online, this may indicate strong potential in a prospect. Employees who risk advocating for ethical or safety concerns in their work environment, may not only be qualified for a role, but they may also be demonstrating concern for a positive internal environment that can benefit a company overall. 


Consistency, Transparency, and Legality: Keys to Using Social Media Checks for Hiring

Companies should remain uniform in their approach to hiring decisions based on social media, or they may risk EEOC violations. Having a policy that enshrines how a company deals with social media, what is acceptable and what is not, and the reasons behind each aspect of the policy can protect the business from negligence claims. Equally important, it can help an employer ensure that their business is not making biased decisions. Policy should serve as a reference point for red flags in the hiring process.

Transparency is also important.  Letting candidates know that social media will be considered helps build trust. Employment attorney Jonathan Segal says that although the legal aspects of notifying candidates about social media checks are unclear, “Nevertheless, he would advise employers to be upfront. Tell candidates that, when conducting background checks, the firm will look at, among other things, criminal, credit, employment and educational history, as well as social media that's available in the public forum.”  A social media check can be conducted towards the end of the hiring process where some rapport has been established, and such a check is not a complete surprise but an indication of a company’s commitment to quality hiring. 

Though nebulous in many cases, legal restrictions are still important guides for companies trying to determine what they should look for in a social media screening. In some states (although there is no federal law for example), it is illegal for employers to retaliate for political speech, including what is found on social media pages. Being aware of and incorporating restrictions from the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) will also help businesses avoid liability when searching social media.  

If a company decides not to make a hire based on a social media red flag, they should document the concern and why it was made. This should be aligned with company policy and ethics. Employment attorney, Eric Meyer recommends, “[Document] any decision not to hire someone due to controversial online behavior.” Take screenshots and provide URLs that link to the red flag; indicate which part of the company policy has been violated and why. This extra step can protect a business and keep internal standards consistent, transparent, and legal. 

Meyer also advises that employers humanize their policies, not just stick to a rigid standard for its own sake: "[Have] a little compassion, a little understanding, consider the source, and account for how old the posting is." The Society for Human Resource Management has a guide on how to fairly conduct a social media screening for candidates. Companies who use these 4 tips and craft a thoughtful social media policy can establish trust with candidates and hire for a strong culture fit without discriminating.

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