Recruiting via social media more popular, but still risky

Posted April 19, 2017

By Kyra Kudick, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

While conducting a thorough background search on job candidates is a best practice, employers need to be careful about how they are using social media to screen applicants.

Sixty percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates, according to a 2016 survey. This number is up from 52 percent last year and 39 percent in 2013.

Of the recruiters who use social media to research candidates:

  • 53 percent said they want to see if the candidate has a professional online persona,
  • 30 percent said they are looking to see what other people are posting about the candidate, and
  • 21 percent admit they’re searching for reasons not to hire the candidate.

The survey also found that 41 percent of employers said they are less likely to interview a job candidate if they can’t find information about that person online.

Understanding the risks

Viewing a candidate’s public online profile is not discriminatory on its face, but it might reveal information about protected characteristics such as race, approximate age, religion, or disability – all factors that employers may not legally consider when making a hiring decision.

In addition, some job seekers might not use social media, so employers who limit their hiring to only applicants with an online profile could run the risk of a discrimination claim based on disparate impact.

Disparate impact discrimination can occur if the employer’s screening policy disproportionately screens out a protected group (such as applicants over 40) and the employer does not demonstrate that the policy is job related and consistent with business necessity. For example, a marketing specialist probably needs job-related experience with social media, but a factory worker likely would not.

Considerations for research

If you are going to conduct a social media search as part of your recruiting practices, consider the following:

Interview first. It might be best to wait to conduct background checks, including social media research, until after the applicant has been interviewed to ensure that you are evaluating job applicants based on qualifications. Conducting research earlier might give the appearance that you are automatically screening out candidates due to protected characteristics.

Appoint a researcher. Some employers choose to have online research performed by someone who is not responsible for making the hiring decision. You might task the researcher with noting only information that is directly relevant to the job. Creating a layer between the online research and the hiring decision might provide some protection in a discrimination claim.

Be consistent. Apply the same screening process to all applicants for the same position. This can help keep a benign process from appearing discriminatory.

Inquire appropriately. As with any background check, be alert for job-related information online that appears inconsistent with other application materials. In such a case, you might give the candidate the opportunity to explain the circumstances. Things aren’t always as they seem online.

About the author:

Kyra Kudick

Kyra Kudick is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource company that offers products and services to address the range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. Kudick specializes in employment law/HR issues such as employee relations, hiring and recruiting, and training and development. She is the author of J. J. Keller’s Employee Relations Essentials manual and SUPER adVISOR newsletter. For more information, visit