Are Employers Checking Social Media?

In this day and age, it’s safe to assume that nothing you put online is completely private. That holds true even when it comes to searching for a job. Your online presence is open to scrutiny from potential employers who want to gauge whether job seekers are a good fit.

Surveys have found that 70 percent of employers are checking the social media accounts of job candidates. Screening a prospective employee’s photos, videos, posts, and search results on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter has become a widespread tool among recruiters and hiring managers.

How Common are Social Media Screenings for Job Seekers?

More and more, employers are using social media background checks to determine whether a candidate is a suitable hire. Just 15 years ago, the practice was practically unheard of among most employers. But social media screenings are now the norm, no matter the industry or position.

A 2018 CareerBuilder survey found that 70 percent of employers use social media checks to screen candidates. When CareerBuilder first conducted the survey in 2006, just 12 percent said they screened candidates’ social media account. The number rose to 25 percent in 2010.

Among employers who check candidates’ online presence, 57 percent said that they’ve excluded applicants based on something they put on social media.

It’s not only job seekers who have to be careful about what they post online. The survey found that 43 percent of employers keep tabs on their current employees’ social media postings, and 34 percent have disciplined (or even fired) an employee because of something posted online.

What Employers Look for in Social Media Background ChecksWhat Employers Look for in Social Media Background Checks

If the vast majority of hiring managers and recruiters are checking job candidates’ social media profiles, what exactly are they looking for? Put broadly, they want to make sure that a potential hire’s online persona or content wouldn’t reflect poorly on the company. But there are many different red flags when it comes to screening a candidate’s accounts.

Poor Character

Companies want to foster positive work environments where coworkers are respectful of each other and there are no signs of work burnout. If the following kinds of posts are found on a job seeker’s social media pages, an employer might determine that the person lacks character.

  • Provocative or inappropriate content or photos. CareerBuilder found this was the most common reason that a social media screening ended up disqualifying a candidate. Excessive drinking, lewdness or drug use are all reasons why an employer might hesitate to offer you an interview or job.
  • Discriminatory or otherwise offensive comments. Racism, sexism, religious discrimination or other forms of bigotry are all valid reasons why a company would refuse to accept a jobseeker. Good employers strive to create open, accepting workplaces, and hateful perspectives have no place.
  • Aggression and trolling. The internet can be a contentious place, and discussions often turn into nasty arguments, especially when it comes to hot political issues. If you’re prone to getting into internet squabbles or stirring up conflict on social media problems, an employer might assume you won’t work well with others in a job setting, either.

Questionable Trustworthiness

Hiring managers want to know that you can be counted on to tell the truth, maintain the company’s reputation, and practice discretion. Don’t let your social media presence put that in doubt with the following types of posts.

  • Posts that reveal lies or misrepresentation. Your social media posts should align with your job application or any statements you’ve made in interviews. If your social media presence reveals that you’ve exaggerated or fabricated your experience, skill set or qualifications, you’ll lose the trust of a potential employer.
  • Negative commentary about workplace or colleagues. If you’re using social media to vent about past coworkers or employers, who’s to say you won’t do it again? While it’s perfectly legitimate to have gripes about work, airing them on a public forum is a good way to repel prospective employers. Keep it in the DMs with trusted confidantes.
  • Sharing confidential or proprietary information. If your posts on social media have references to sensitive information from your past employers, a company is likely to suspect it can’t count on you to keep important projects or data under wraps.

Falling Short of Professional Standards

Employers want employees who reflect well on the company both in and outside of the office. Based on your social media, they might also draw conclusions about how you will behave and interact with others in a professional setting. Avoid posts that contain the following:

  • Absenteeism or tardiness. Posts about habitually skipping work or coming late will not reflect well on your reliability as a future employee. It might seem minor to you, but many hiring managers would take frequent lateness as a sign of an uncommitted worker.
  • Personal social media posting during work hours. If you have frequent personal posts during the typical workday times, an employer might assume that you lack diligence as a worker. While some fields, such as media or public relations, encourage keeping up an active, personable social media presence, most expect you to be focused on the tasks at hand.
  • Poor communication. Social media posts that are beset with grammatical mistakes or misspellings could suggest that these same issues will also plague your professional communications. Employers want workers who will represent the company well on all platforms.

While this gives an overview of the most common social media don’ts for job seekers, the list is by no means an exhaustive compilation of what employers look for in social media screenings. Use your judgment, and err on the side of caution when it comes to posts you’re not sure about.

How Social Media Can Help You in the Hiring ProcessHow Social Media Can Help You in the Hiring Process

Based on what we’ve covered so far, it might seem like hiring managers are only checking social media to catch you at your worst. But that’s not the case. A social media screening can actually end up boosting a candidate’s chances of getting the job if their online presence projects an image that appeals to the employer.

In many fields, social media savvy is an attractive attribute. Tuning up your social media accounts can be a boon for your career prospects. Focus on highlighting these attributes if you want your online presence to stand out in a good way:

  • Creativity. Employers are drawn to candidates who show that they think outside of the box. The open environment on social media can be an ideal platform to engage with followers in innovative ways and share interesting perspectives on relevant issues.
  • Evidence of qualifications. Your social media presence should back up how you’ve presented yourself in your resume, cover letter and interview. You can accomplish this by joining alumni groups, sharing connections with other people in your field, creating an online portfolio of your work, and gathering endorsements from colleagues on career networking sites like LinkedIn.  
  • Insight. Social media is a space for expressing yourself, so use the opportunity to share your expertise and knowledge on topics relevant to your career field. You can do this through blogging, interacting with prominent voices in your industry, or responding to hot topics and widely read pieces. Show that you’re tapped into the conversation.
  • Professional image. Knowing how to present yourself well is a skill -- and a highly valued one at that. Companies want to hire people that they can rely on to represent the company well when interacting with clients or partners. Prove you can do this by selecting high-quality, professional photographs as your profile pictures and using professional language.
  • Strong communication skills. In most positions, hiring managers value employees who can communicate effectively. Social media is all about communication, so it provides a terrific opportunity to showcase how you convey messages to both wide audiences and individuals.
  • Engaging with and sharing meaningful content. Engaged, passionate people can often translate that enthusiasm into their work. Highlighting content that you feel strongly about is a good way to show your spirit, especially if you’re pursuing a field that involves advocacy or a clear mission.
  • High follower or subscriber count. The ability to gain influence -- and wield it effectively -- is highly prized among employers. Building up a large following on social media is an indication that you know how to reach people in relevant ways.
  • Positive personality. Too much content that is too negative could give employers pause. They might not want to bring such pessimism into their working environment. Positive, forward-thinking posts can show you’re driven and motivated to make the most of any situation.

For job candidates looking to go into fields that appreciate web savvy, engagement, and messaging, social media is an important tool. It’s one thing to tell an interviewer how comfortable you are online; having a track record to prove it will set you apart.

How Employers Check Social MediaHow Employers Check Social Media

So how exactly do hiring managers and recruiters go about cyber-stalking prospective employees? The first step is obvious: They’ll probably search your name on Google and see what comes up - hopefully, it’s not a local news story about your drunk and disorderly arrest from six years ago. Then, they’ll move on to looking you up on specific social media platforms.

Instagram

If they find a public Instagram account for you, they’ll scan your photos for any of the red flags we outlined above. They also might peek into your follows and followers to see what kind of crowd you run with.

Facebook

On Facebook, employers will be interested in your About Me section, along with any educational and work history that you’ve listed to make sure it square with the information you’ve given. As with Instagram, they’ll likely take a gander at your publicly available photos.

Twitter

When looking at Twitter, they’ll read posts to make sure everything is above board. Twitter can be a great platform for following major industry figures, so it’s possible they will also check whether you are following the heavy hitters in the field to keep up with current trends and news.

LinkedIn

When they look up candidates on LinkedIn, it’s less likely that hiring managers and recruiters are checking for red flags or inappropriate content. Rather, they want to see skill and qualification endorsements, and descriptions of your experience that match the resume and interview. They also might look into any shared connections that could serve as references.

Overall, employers are aiming to make sure the impression they’ve developed about a candidate wasn’t mistaken. Social media can either support or contradict the image a jobseeker has presented.

Is It Legal for Employers to Check Social Media?

The simple answer is yes, it is legal for employers to look at social media to screen job candidates. However, the full answer isn’t so simple.

When Social Media Screening Leads to Discrimination

There are few laws at this point that explicitly limit how an employer can use social media to monitor or screen an employee or job candidate. However, there are some situations in which looking at a candidate’s online presence could be used for legally questionable purposes that would make a company vulnerable to claims of discrimination.

Employers cannot use information about protected classes to deny a candidate a job. For example, the New York Times’ work advice column noted that, looking at social media could open a company up to a claim that they rejected a prospective employee because she was pregnant. Protected classes can vary by state, but often include (but are not limited to):

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Gender or sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Religious affiliation
  • Marital status
  • Age
  • Citizenship

How Companies Screen Social Media LegallyHow Companies Screen Social Media Legally

While social media can be a useful tool for gauging a candidate’s suitability for a position and work environment, it also comes with risks. There are laws on the books that protect employees and job seekers that employers need to be mindful of. According to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), companies follow these best practices to keep from infringing on a candidate’s rights.

 

  • Don’t request an applicant’s login credentials. Beyond it simply being invasive to ask for access to an applicant’s private communications, many states have outright banned the practice. Even if your state doesn’t have a specific ban, the SHRM warns that asking for passwords could cause you to break the federal Stored Communications Act. This is not worth the risk -- stick with checking publicly available posts.

 

  • Screen everyone or no one. SHRM stresses consistency when screening candidates’ online presence. This prevents the appearance that you are targeting certain types of candidates for social media screening.

 

  • Put it off. Wait to look up the candidate on social media platforms until they’ve already come in for an interview.
  • Pass the buck. Your human resources should know the ins and outs of legal and acceptable hiring practices. Plus, creating a step of remove between the screening and the final decision can prevent bias from seeping into the process.

Outsourcing Social Media Background Checks

Some employers opt to hand off the responsibility of digging into a candidate’s background to a third party. There are several reasons why they might do this. Perhaps the hirer doesn’t have much web-savvy and isn’t confident that their search will be thorough or productive.

They might also worry about opening themselves up to accusations of discrimination after making a hiring decision based on what they saw about a candidate online. Outsourcing the job removes the legal risks that can come with social media screening.

Services like Social Intelligence and Good Egg promise to check candidates’ online presence efficiently and legally. They protect the job seeker’s privacy and prevent the employer from being exposed to the sort of protected class information that isn’t allowed to be used in hiring decisions. Rather than casual searching a candidate’s name, these third-party services have standards and procedures to make sure the process doesn’t run afoul of any restrictions.

How to Make Your Social Media Profiles More Professional

If you’re concerned that your social media profiles may not clear a screening from a prospective employer, use these strategies for bringing them up to snuff.

Create Separate Personal and Professional Accounts

A simple way to keep your social media posts from interfering with a job opportunity is to set them to private. You should absolutely do that for your personal accounts. However, it may strike an employer as suspicious if you have no public web presence whatsoever. It can be advantageous to create public-facing, professional accounts that you cater to professional employers. Engage with topics and other accounts related to your field, and leave the rest to your private account.

Keep Your Profiles Up to Date

An employer doesn’t want to have to struggle to find the most relevant information about you. Update your profiles often, and, especially when it comes to career-oriented sites like LinkedIn, fill in the fields that would be of interest to a recruiter or hiring manager. Make it easy on them.

Delete Old Pages

When your employer searches for you online, you want them only to see the most relevant things. If you still have accounts with your name attached on old platforms that you haven’t updated in ages, it might be time to shut those down. While they might not contain anything that would reflect poorly on you, it’s best that a prospective employer stays focused on the current version of your online presence.

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