Background Checking … Using Social Media

Employee referrals and social media have begun to blend together. Could background checks and social media be next?

A new company called “Social Intelligence” says it’ll “track the worldwide network of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn, individual blogs, and thousands of other sources.”

Social Intelligence will, within 24-48 hours, produce a report on a job candidate using both automation as well as humans, the latter there to make sure there aren’t “false positives.” It says it will weed out “protected class” information it finds, such as race and religion. The company is also offering a version to monitor what existing employees are up to.

As far as the hiring version, a screenshot, which you can click on to enlarge, shows that the employee profile screens for such things as: “Gangs,” “Drugs/drug lingo,” “demonstrating potentially violent behavior,” and “poor judgment” — something we could all agree can be found in ample supply on social media.

I asked the company’s CEO, Max Drucker, whether this judgment thing is kind of subjective. “We err on the side of not flagging something,” he says, adding that “serious red-flag issues” are what they’re really looking for. He also notes that the firm has three people review information before the profile’s done. So, “Todd beat Sean in the 600-meter dash” shouldn’t show up as a Todd-beats-people flag. I hope.

Nick Fishman, the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, doesn’t envision his or other similar companies going down the social-media background-checking road. “Not only are they not now, but I don’t foresee getting into it in the future,” he says. “It’s a hornet’s nest.” Awaiting employers in that nest, he says, are FCRA regulations and EEO rules.

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But Drucker, from Social Intelligence, says that “what we do is protect the employee from discrimination, and protect the employer from allegations of discrimination.” He notes that “if the employer is freaked out by the risks” of background checks and skips them, then they may end up liable for being negligent in the hiring process.

Robert Pickell, who’s the senior vice president of customer solutions at HireRight, says that he expects to see a lawsuit like that before long: a workplace violence or similar episode will happen, and someone will argue that the employer should have found information on social media indicating that the employee was dangerous.

HireRight has been talking to customers about the social-media-background-checking convergence for three or four years. The company has yet to plunge into it, though, saying there just isn’t demand, and the pitfalls are too great.

In the comment section, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this.


29 Comments on “Background Checking … Using Social Media

  1. I would not want to be that firm’s insurance company, at least until a few libel claims have been court-tested.

    I also would not want to use a selection or ranking method that has not been shown/tested to be free of disparate impact.

  2. I’m with Martin. When Todd and I spoke, I didn’t have the benefit of seeing what the interface would look like. Having seen it, I’m even more entrenched in my position that employers should stay away from this.

    However, I think the concept could be extremely valuable for job seekers.

  3. Todd- I enJOY your articles… Very well written (I am learning from YOU) This is about “telling the truth”, and and employer receiving what they asked for in an employee… I am LOL that someone is “thinking” about lawsuits, were talking about matching top employees with top candidates, and utilizing systems to achieve that goal, and were talking about lawsuits?? (In comments?)

    Finally we have a way of exposing the “NOT SO NICE PEOPLE” in this world…

    I am ALL for it…. In fact, run a “social intelligence” check on me! 🙂

    Best to ALL, Brian-

  4. Todd,

    This sounds like running a Google Alert on someone, something that job seekers also do on companies, on steroids. It could be a valuable service to employers.

    For individuals, it’s increasingly important to determine where you want to fall on the continuum from complete privacy on-line, if that’s even possible, to full authenticity — because someone will be watching.

    A post I offered last week on “10 Things You Shouldn’t Reveal in a Twitter Profile” ( stirred up quite a dust regarding how people feel about their authenticity. I linked your post here in the comments to that post to help people understand just how sophisticated an employer’s monitoring of their on-line presence might be.

    Thank you for sharing information about this interesting service.

    Donna Svei aka @AvidCareerist

  5. I think this technology is a brilliant service. There was a case in years past where we offered someone we should not have. If we would have done a more thorough check in social media it would have become very clear that this person was not a fit for our organization. I’m forwarding this article on. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Nick, Martin, and Les: when you say that “employers should stay away from this” and so on, do you mean stay away from using services that assist in social-media background checks, or do you mean organizations should stay away from social media background checks, period? In other words, should companies specifically tell recruiters and hiring managers not to look up candidates on Facebook and elsewhere?

  7. Hi Todd- as lawyers say, “It depends.” My quick answer tuned into an article too long to post here, so will post a link to a blog article that responds your question in more detail. The short answer is that there are ways an employer can try to search these social network sites to try to exercise due diligence and at the same time attempt to minimize risk, but it requires a great deal of thinking it out ahead of time. The analysis for doing it in-house is very different them the analysis for outsourcing to a third party service. In addition, the analysis for recruiters is also much different then for HR. However, this is an evolving area with very little in the way of cases law or statutes to give employers clear direction, which is why it is risky still.

  8. Wendell and Dr. Handler, where R U ?

    Todd, the means that organizations use to conduct hiring operations are far more legally circumscribed than many people realize. Apparently harmless activities like hiring someone to monitor Facebook for you could metastasize into major liability if those activities lead to an impact on a protected class of applicants. What people may not realize is that the burden of proof is on the hiring organization IF the hiring organization has not conducted its hiring in compliance with the Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection.

    Les offered a very wise comment, and indeed the subject is bigger than this form of commenting easily accommodates. In broad strokes, the uniform guidelines require that selection and ranking processes apply equally to all candidates. Because of the wide variety of expression on Facebook etc., what would be disqualifying or negatively scoring would have to be very carefully described and applied to every candidate. Each element examined would have to be directly linked to a bona fide occupational qualification, and not just linked by supposition, but via valid statistical methods.

    Just abstract this for a moment as to the question of whether you should hire a private investigator to investigate each candidate. You would have to be very cautious as to how you executed that program.

    Now in the real world, individual recruiters and small organizations are very unlikely to ever face an EEO claim, and they may make use these services to the extent that the services are financially successful. If I were hiring in any volume, I would consider the activity radioactive.

    On the other hand, for candidates its fantastic- protecting your social media footprint is an essential career management element going forward.

    Also wanted to note that if you are in Chicago for HR Tech, and you encounter my fellow principal/VP Marketing Bill Kubicek, you might want to introduce yourself. Bill is a real character who works hard to make connections between people he suspects might want to meet each other. Beware: minimal throttle between brain and mouth on that guy esp. when he starts having actual fun.

  9. I have to say I am not fond of this idea on so many levels. In my opinion, social networking as an effective hiring tool ranks right along with tea-leaves, astrology, and handwriting analysis. That said, anyone with sufficiently poor judgment to demonstrate inappropriate behavior in a public medium probably deserves what they get. To the best of my knowedge the role of a recruiter (corporate or otherwise) is identify people who are job-qualified…and, aside from the potential for making a perfect jerk out of yourself, I dont see how social media does that.

  10. Sorry for the delayed response. I’ve been at the HR Tech Conference all day. I agree with everything Les and Martin said above. Yes, there is the potential for employers to discover something that might give them pause when extending a job offer, but how do you know who posted it, the context of what was posted or the veracity of the information? How do you make consistent decisions when such information is found? How can the person dispute the information that was found? And most important, how does the employer avoid claims of discrimination when they can so clearly see information such as a person’s age, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, race, etc. As I have heard Les say many a time, “you can’t unring that bell”.

    For more detail on the problems this practice can cause, check out our most recent white paper on social networking and background checks paper_social_networking.pdf

  11. Wendell sorry for not calling you Dr. Williams in conjunction with Dr.Handler- slipped my mind, a good editor would have slapped me.

  12. I have to say that I feel this technology is a total invasion of privacy and good luck to anyone who uses it and expects that they are in any way impervious to lawsuits. It is a highly subjective measure that, when used as a selection tool, is in violation of best practices on so many levels. I can see the argument for it, I get it. Still, I cannot feel good about it. We are entitled to our privacy. I do feel people should be discreet about what they allow to be attached to their name on the web. But what about all those that keep things private, should they have an advantage over those who do not? I am not sure. At the end of the day, I could not recommend that my clients use this technology.

  13. What a company will find most valuable is data that relates to the ability to perform successfully. We have done analysis that documents social media source to quality of hire and conversion rate by source. Rather than look for data further away from the candidate, it might be more prudent and a better use of resources to get a work sample from the candidate. Stop relying on proxy measures and invest in obtaining better candidate data to make better hiring decisions.

  14. Where it will be useful is, if you’re hiring an IT talent, and the guy is hanging out with hackers and promoting hacking–maybe that guy isn’t a fit, but is qualified? A social media check can better identify that because of their digital footprint.

  15. “Privacy”-isn’t that one of those quaint Twen-Cen concepts like “a strong and growing middle class”,”the 40 hour work week”, and “employer loyalty”? Remember, we all now live in “Santa’s Global Village”:

    *Santa Claus is coming to town
    He’s making a list
    And checking it twice;
    Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
    Santa Claus is coming to town
    He sees you when you’re sleeping
    He knows when you’re awake
    He knows if you’ve been bad or good
    So be good for goodness sake!

    Ho, ho, ho!


    * Santa Claus is a registered trade avatar of GoogleFace.
    All rights reserved

  16. Isn’t this service just an extension of what we all do, i.e. googling someone we don’t know before we meet the person. Social Intelligence simply structures this process.
    Privacy’s dead anyway.

  17. While the lawyers are busy telling employers not to touch social media for “background checking,” I suspect that Robert Pickell is correct that we can expect to see lawsuits before long. Precedents will be set.

    I think it will come down that social media is a PUBLIC PLACE. Is one’s behavior in public is subject to the same privacy laws that apply to those in public places?

    For example, if you’re a hiring manager and you run into a candidate in a bar who’s making a drunken fool of himself, gets in a brawl because he was sexually harassing some guy’s wife, and subsequently gets thrown out of the bar by the bouncer – would you still hire that guy? Knowing he might do something similar at the next office Christmas party? Or possibly expose the company to a sexual harassment suit?

    I agree with Dr Williams judgement that “anyone with sufficiently poor judgment to demonstrate inappropriate behavior in a public medium probably deserves what they get.”

    And don’t “job qualifications” extend to company culture and “fit” and to some extend values? Is observing a person’s public behavior so different than any other behavioral assessment? I think the courts may find behavior in public is a good indicator of how someone will behave on the job.

    Interesting thread & great comments.

  18. Hmm, for some reason my previous comment never got posted. Here’s what I wrote, in part:

    I recently wrote a blog post/white paper entitled “Social Screening: Candidates – and Employers – Beware.” After I shared it with Nick Fishman of EmployeeIQScreen, he directed me to this post. I have enjoyed reading the extended digital conversation here and in the posts referenced in the comments.

    My blog post/white paper was inspired in part by conversations I had at the HR Technology Conference with Geoff Andrews of Social Intelligence and a rep from a company called SocializedHR.

    From my perspective, the process of conducting social background checks is inherently risky, regardless of whether a service like SocialIntelligence is used. Though they may facilitate the process, plenty of employers can – and ARE – conducting these searches manually. At least when a third party is used, recruiters and hiring managers can insulate themselves against certain risk factors (e.g., seeing protected class information that is not relevant to the hiring decision). And because using a third party invokes the FCRA, employers would have to get permission in advance and disclose that these checks were being conducted. They’d also have to share the information they discovered with candidates and give them a chance to respond. I am not a proponent of social background checks and I don’t know if SocialIntelligence can fully comply with the requirements of the FCRA, but from my conversation with Geoff they have created a lot of checks and balances in their system and have designed their service to be compliant. I did not get the same degree of assurance from SocializedHR, which strikes me as a much more dangerous alternative.

    It’s important to remember that recruiters, HR folks, and hiring managers are conducting social searches to source candidates as well, so the risks aren’t just inherent in the background checking process.

    My expanded thoughts on social screening can be accessed here:

    Blog post –

    White paper –


  19. For some reason, my previous comment didn’t get posted. I tried to repost it to no avail. 🙁

    Please refer to the blog post above for my thoughts on SocialIntelligence and the ideas shared in this piece.



  20. This is, in a really really really generalized way (since, this is a comment) pretty much a lose-lose proposition.

    Use social media to recruit? Potential to be sued for discrimination.

    Don’t use social media to do a background check? Your new hire – the one who is your high school’s liaison to MADD – turns out to love posting pics of herself doing gravity bongs.


    My personal opinion (and there are smarter people commenting here, so caveat emptor and all of that): Discrimination in recruitment, in this context, occurs from a suspicion of bias in the sourcing piece (ie, you didn’t bring someone in because you saw their Facebook page, and they were in a wheelchair, a minority, etc).

    Using social media as a reference check should be something you do, but make it a policy to do so _after_ you’ve met the person at least once. Make sure you send them an e-mail that you’ll be doing so. For sourcing, to prevent charges of bias, stop using Facebook as a recruiting tool. It’s pretty ineffective anyways. When you use LinkedIn, turn off images in your browser settings. Make this a written policy you can refer to when/ if you get sued.

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