Social media is a prime opportunity to showcase one’s professional endeavors, interests, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, and even personality.

A person’s Instagram profile, for instance, lets you spot their favorite places and ways of spending time; Twitter displays one’s views on modern trends and culture; LinkedIn highlights their work experience, thoughts on their industry, and how they connect with peers.

However, you can’t predict how a candidate will fit your team based on their social media activity alone. People behave differently at home versus at work, and that’s the primary argument many employees have against checking their social profiles during the hiring process.

Companies, however, hold the opposite opinion: 67% of employers conduct social media background checks when screening candidates. Additionally, 54% said the information they found online helped them eliminate potential hires.

If you’re still unsure whether you should follow suit or don’t know what exactly to look for on these profiles, you’re in the right place. I’ll explain the platforms to hit, what criteria to search for, and the ethics of social media screening. You’ll also find a screening walkthrough should you decide to pursue this method during your hiring process.

What is social media screening?

Social media screening involves checking a candidate’s profiles and activities on major platforms. The goal is to learn more about the applicant’s background and find information that could affect your hiring decision.

Which social platforms should employers check?

According to Zenefits, the top three social platforms employers should look into when screening a candidate are:

  • LinkedIn: Geared primarily toward professional use, a profile on this platform can also serve as a second resume.
  • Facebook: Meta’s platform shows employers what types of content an applicant shares, is tagged in, and interacts with most.
  • Twitter (also known as X): Anyone can see an individual’s tweets, unless their profile is set to private. What they post and reply to helps gauge their interests and beliefs.

However, don’t limit your search to the above social networks. You should also browse channels such as:

  • Instagram: This visual platform gives you an idea about a person’s lifestyle outside a professional setting.
  • TikTok: A candidate’s videos on this app can help you gauge their personality, as well as how well they work with people (if they involve others in their content).
  • Other platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp are also viable options for your job applicant’s background check.

Reasons to check social media

Before searching for your candidate’s social profiles and online activity, consider if you need to look them up in the first place. Although not always necessary, there are a few reasons why you’d want or need to check on them.

Real-time updates

Social media possesses an element of time that doesn’t exist in a resume or cover letter. You can see candidates post content in real time, which provides a glimpse of what they find important enough to share and when.

Imagine you’re hiring for your Wall Street company, but the applicant is posting about their new TV in the middle of a financial crisis. In that case, you may want to rethink that candidate.

Supporting information

In the U.S., 72% of Resume Builder’s survey respondents have admitted to lying on their resumes, while 68% say they did so during an interview.

Social media screening can help you prepare for this deception by allowing you to search for details that support (or contradict) a candidate’s claims before you interact with them. It may even reveal strengths and weaknesses that a resume and cover letter can’t express.

You could, for example, formulate questions about specific achievements or career milestones and events based on either proof (or a lack of it) from the applicant’s social profiles.

Cultural fit

Every company has a developed culture or rules of conduct that revolve around a certain personality. As such, 51% of employers check a job applicant’s social media presence to gauge whether they fit these established norms.

For example, if you work in a financial organization, you’d expect personnel to stick with business casual outfits and refrain from visible tattoos or bright green hair. Obviously, if you see a candidate who’s a party animal, you might worry they’d stir the pot and distract their colleagues from work.

Alternatively, let’s say a manager takes the employees’ views and opinions too seriously, placing them on par with their skills. In this case, HR specialists can check an applicant’s social media profile to verify they fit in terms of both skills and desired personality.

Brand protection

Culture plays a significant role in your employer branding, and that’s dependent on hiring and developing talent that aligns with your company’s mission, vision, values, and goals.

Screening a candidate’s social profiles can thus help you identify warning signs or behaviors that contradict what your organization stands for.

Red flags to watch for

Although an applicant’s social media activity shouldn’t be the main basis of your hiring decision, it can still help you pinpoint concerning signs and behaviors. Here are some red flags you should be wary of.

Radical content

Social media has made people comfortable with sharing whatever they want online, which isn’t an issue in its own right. 

However, if your candidate freely pumps out radical content, like emotional posts against equality and DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging), extreme political views, or an open combative argument online, that should trigger some alarms.

People have the right to agree or disagree, but imposing one’s opinion aggressively can easily lead to future conflict. If your candidate can’t conduct themselves maturely online, their professionalism in the workplace isn’t assured either.

Unprofessional communication styles

One’s personality affects their communication style, particularly in the workplace. How your candidate interacts or converses with friends, followers, and connections online can say a lot about their face-to-face behavior as well.

Do they use smart language, even in a casual setting, or do they sacrifice grammar at every turn? Is your candidate friendly and courteous to everyone?

If they’re rude, arrogant, passive-aggressive, or frequently disagree with others’ opinions, that’s reasonable cause to be concerned, as people tend to use the same communication style at home and at work.

Also, if you see your candidate failing to communicate effectively, think twice about inviting them for an interview. They may cause confusion among colleagues and find it difficult to work in a team. Miscommunication could also trigger arguments, in turn diminishing both productivity and the overall work environment.

Inappropriate content

An astounding 79% of HR professionals dismissed hiring candidates after discovering inappropriate content on their digital profiles. Additionally, 48% of employers refrained from employing people who shared content of themselves drinking or taking illegal substances on social media.

In this case, however, you need to take context into consideration. Social posts, for instance, that are too personal aren’t ideal (unless your job applicant is a blogger).

Candidates sharing photos of themselves intoxicated or indecently exposed is an automatic no. However, if your applicant models and does photoshoots or has a medical condition requiring cannabis, you should reconsider.

Otherwise, an applicant consistently displaying such behavior on their profile with zero justification may reflect poorly on your organization in the future.

Green flags to look for

Now that you have a clear idea of the warning signs, let’s look at what can help you determine whether a candidate fits your company.

Evidence of expertise

You’ll mostly find this type of content on LinkedIn. While scrolling through your applicant’s feed, you may see:

  • Photos of them attending or managing conferences
  • Reposts of thoughts or write-ups from industry leaders
  • Links to industry-specific educational materials

What they share can further evidence your candidate’s involvement in their field and show they’re willing to network and grow their skills.

If they forgo these kinds of posts on other social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, that’s fine. After all, many people prefer not to mix work with their personal lives.

Creative content

Creativity is awesome, as it allows your employees to think outside the box and develop innovative solutions.

Creativity and critical thinking can be conceptually related as well, and people who combine the two tend to be independent thinkers and have the potential to become good leaders. So, when a candidate applies the same thinking in their personal life, they’re likely to be a great help at work and an asset to your organization. 

When scanning applicants’ social profiles, see whether they share anything that addresses specific issues, shows strong insight or judgment, and demonstrates an inquisitive nature. Posts bearing these characteristics can solidify claims of being a creative problem-solver.

Personality indicators

The main reason for combing through a candidate’s social media presence is to learn about them before a face-to-face interaction. It has proven to be an excellent resource for discovering an individual’s interests, hobbies, habits, background, etc.

Seeing a constant involvement in team sports, for instance, indicates they likely function well in a diverse group. If they love to read, it can point to an inherent curiosity and thirst for knowledge.

You may even spot signs of their personality type, such as whether they’re an introvert or extrovert, if they love to lead, and more. You can then implement that information if you hire them to maximize their strengths and assign tasks that suit them most.

How they acknowledge feedback

Lastly, sharing content online allows anyone who sees and engages with it to comment. So, make sure to look at how your candidate approaches any feedback or criticism on social media, be it constructive or negative.

Do they respond with grace or anger? This is extremely important, as it’ll likely mirror how well they receive remarks of a similar nature in the workplace.

Be aware of potential issues

You now have a grasp of the considerations needed to screen your candidate’s online presence thoroughly. Before conducting a check though, there are a few concerns you should know.

An article published by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) discourages employers from screening job applicants’ social media because:

  • The information they uncover is ethically dissuaded or legally forbidden from being used as a basis for judging candidates and making hiring decisions
  • The details that companies glean are unreliable predictors of a candidate’s future work performance
  • “It will result in bias,” says Atta Tarki, CEO of ECA Partners, a recruiting firm (Tarki even warns clients against screening candidate profiles on social platforms)

Legal implications

In the U.S., the legalities surrounding social media checks aren’t properly established yet, but employers do have to comply with laws such as:

  • The Fair Credit Reporting Act: This protects consumer information that certain agencies collect, stating that, if they’re used for employment purposes, they must inform an individual about any action taken because of it.
  • The Civil Rights Act: This “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK, meanwhile, has also presented regulations that cover social media preemployment checks and discourage organizations from making employment decisions based on:

  • Race
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Gender

Since these details are openly shared on social platforms, they can easily be a cause of discrimination. Also, based on your location, if the applicant can prove you engaged in such behavior during your screening process, you may face legal ramifications.

Ethical implications

Ethical arguments mainly revolve around whether or not it’s acceptable for employers to assess candidates based on their private lives.

Additionally, since applicants need to know your process involves social media screening, you should prepare for the consequences, such as your brand possibly taking a hit or candidates curating their content to match your company’s image. So, before implementing checks on social platforms, make sure you tread carefully. 

How to conduct social media screening

Armed with the knowledge of proper social media screening, here’s a step-by-step guide showing you how to do it yourself.

Step 1: Create an internal policy

This is your most important step. A social media screening policy ensures your practices are both legal and consistent. Here, you should establish the following:

  • Who conducts screening: This could be one of your HR specialists or a third party that has expertise in employment law. They should also possess knowledge about the job opening and its requirements.
  • When screening will take place: Conduct screening during the same step in your hiring process. I recommend doing so later in the application portion, alongside other background checks.
  • What positions will be screened: Decide if you’ll screen across all positions or customer- or public-facing ones, since those require a more professional online footprint.
  • How screening will be conducted: Which social platforms will you examine? Will you also search for information on public websites? Note that a broader search will be time-consuming, so narrow your parameters where you can.
  • How findings will be reported: Ensure only job-related information is used for reporting and decision-making and determine if documentation, like screenshots, is necessary. Clearly identify the report’s recipient as well, whether it be a manager or HR specialist.

Step 2: Prepare screening criteria

Before any type of background check or individual screening, develop objective, job-related standards. This ensures a fair procedure and can include benchmarks such as educational attainment, employment history, credentials, professional references, etc.

You can also highlight specific personality traits like agreeableness or conscientiousness for certain team setups, or managerial characteristics such as problem-solving or open communication.

Step 3: Acquire consent

As mentioned, a candidate should be informed of any actions taken based on the contents of their social media profiles, including your intent to review their online activity.

This can be done through a call, email, or some other line of professional communication. What’s most important is that you establish openness and transparency throughout your interactions with each individual.

Step 4: Obtain social media details

To ensure a seamless, professional, and user-friendly experience, collect your candidate’s social media information through an online form. Acquire details such as their profile URLs, usernames, and the like. If IDs are necessary, ask for them. This will help your team verify each account’s ownership.

Do so while gathering information for other background checks as well, such as professional references. Remember to state explicitly that you won’t collect sensitive information such as the applicant’s passwords; you may end up violating laws otherwise.

Finally, to keep applicants honest, advise them in writing that any accounts you find that they fail to disclose will be reported as well.

Step 5: Conduct screening

Now you’re ready to start sifting through your job applicants’ social media activity. Begin by conducting a search on Google, then the major platforms I’ve listed earlier in the article.

It’s up to you whether you look at channels like YouTube, WhatsApp or Reddit but, throughout the screening process, review each account’s posts, comments, and whatever content they engage with, taking note of any red and green flags you spot.

I briefly mentioned context earlier, and it’s important to obtain for the details you find. Also, measure your results against the criteria you’ve set. See if you can come up with a unique scoring system for different aspects of your candidates’ social profiles, such as brand risk. This will simplify reporting, which is your next step.

Step 6: Report to the assigned recipient

Whoever conducts the screening should give their findings to the manager or HR specialist specified in your screening policy.

At this point, the screener should have determined whether a candidate has provided truthful and consistent information throughout or has falsified any points. They should also have a clearer idea of the applicant’s ability to meet some of the job’s requirements.

Sometimes candidates may set their profiles to private, or they’re rarely active on social media. In these cases, you won’t uncover much, but, unless social media proficiency is required for the position, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Step 7: Retain records

As a deterrent to potential discrimination claims, whoever conducted the screening should document the whole process and detail when the social media check was performed, which profiles were checked, the results, and the decisions made.

Depending on the applicable law, you should also hold onto the candidate’s records and the results of their social media screening for one to two years. After that period of time, you can dispose of them according to your company’s policies.

Wrapping up — Social media screening is a helpful component of hiring

Checking a candidate’s social media profiles gives you a basic idea of their personality, interests, and skills.

Carefully choose which platforms you’ll check, take note of the positive and negative aspects of each candidate profile, and address any ethical or legal issues beforehand for informative and hassle-free screening.

That being said, don’t let social media ultimately dictate your hiring decision. It’s a helpful complement but doesn’t paint a complete picture, especially when skills matter most in the position. Unless a candidate’s online presence is a major red flag from the start, invite them for an interview and witness their behavior firsthand. While your screening results shouldn’t make the final call, they can lay the foundation for more productive interviews and help guide you to the best hire.

About the Author: Jocelyn Pick