Should You Screen Job Candidates’ Social Media Activity? YES…but

More than ever, the employee hiring process has been a hot topic of conversation and controversy lately. Not only are there legal or ethical restrictions on what information hiring managers and decision makers can or can’t use to access candidates, the hiring process itself is fraught with bias and noise.

An article in the September-October 2021 issue of the Harvard Business Review “IdeaWatch” section admonishes decision makers to “stop screening job candidates’ social media” (the article’s title). The article, which is a synopsis of an academic paper, promotes the idea of embracing “evidence-based recruiting.”

Is Off-the-Clock Behavior Fair Play or Out of Bounds?

One of the original study’s researchers, a professor at the University of Iowa, believes that candidate screening should have a “clear distinction between what people do during work and what they do outside of work.”

In one of the studies, 266 Facebook profiles of job seekers were reviewed to see what they revealed about the candidates. Fifty-one percent contained profanity; 11% indicated gambling problems; 26% showed or referenced alcohol consumption; and 7% referenced drug use.

Would this information be diagnostic of a candidate’s future on-the-job performance? Only time will tell whether or not it has a dilution effect on the impact of quality information. However, the cascading effects of off-the-clock drug and alcohol use rarely remain outside the company entrance for long.

Atta Tarki, CEO of ECA Partners, a recruiting firm, warns hiring managers about digital sleuthing of candidate social media accounts: “If you let hiring managers screen social media profiles, it will result in bias,” he claims in the HBR article. ECA Partners use social media screeners—and not hiring managers—to look for unequivocal red flags in social media profiles. Those red flags are then reported to hiring managers, but the screening is done after candidate selection, not before.

A recent HBR article cited a study that researched questionable off-the-clock activities of many CEOs—from gains from possible insider trading and domestic violence to extravagant lifestyles and multiple DUI arrests. Wouldn’t it be prudent for board members to have access to such information prior to hiring a CEO?

Does such information call up bias? Of course it does, but often such bias serves as an “early warning system” to suggest a potential problem that remains hidden on a résumé. But more companies seem to prefer to emphasize avoiding hiring bias than they do ensuring a high-quality hire without hidden baggage that could be costly down the road.

For those responsible for making high-quality, cost-effective hiring decisions, shouldn’t a potential candidate’s actions and behaviors as seen on social media platforms fit the criteria as “evidence-based recruiting” for evaluating quality of hire?

According to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, 70% of employers check out applicant profiles as part of their screening process, and 57% have rejected applicants because of what they found; 48% monitor employees on social media; and 34% disciplined or fired employees for social media content. According to the first referenced HBR article, the assumption was that this information was being used to predict whether a person will succeed on the job.

But the truth is: You can’t accurately predict a candidate’s future on-the-job success but take notice of the signs along the way.

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Donn LeVie Jr. has 30 years’ experience leading people and projects for such Fortune 100 companies as Phillips Petroleum, Motorola, Intel Corporation; government agencies (NOAA), and academia (Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, University of Houston Downtown College). He specializes at the intersection of leadership, communication, and performance, which means he works with organization leaders and executives through the doorway of coaching and consulting so that they get higher performance, higher employee retention, and richer financial results though intelligent leadership influence.

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