Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Start-up offers social media background searches; employers rejoice and privacy advocates mistakenly groan

More employers are turning to social media sites to vet potential employees. There is no doubt that sites like Facebook and Twitter offer a wealth of information about potential hires. Using these sites to vet job candidates offers a great opportunity, and also a huge risk. Using publicly available information on the Internet has the risk of disclosing protected EEO information, such as disability, age, race, or religion, or, at a minimum, raising a dangerous inference that such information was discovered and used in the hiring process.

Nearly two years ago, I cautioned employers against relying solely on online background checks to vet potential employees. I recommended using a “third-party to do the searching, with instructions that any sensitive, protected, or EEO information not be disclosed back to you.” No companies were available, though, that specialized in these types of background searches, until now.

Last month, the FTC signed-off on a year-old company that searches social media sites for employers conducting background searches on employees—Social Intelligence Corp. In last Wednesday’s New York Times, Jennifer Preston wrote a profile of the start-up that has generated a lot of online discussion:

Companies have long used criminal background checks, credit reports and even searches on Google and LinkedIn to probe the previous lives of prospective employees. Now, some companies are requiring job candidates to also pass a social media background check.

A year-old start-up, Social Intelligence, scrapes the Internet for everything prospective employees may have said or done online in the past seven years.

Then it assembles a dossier with examples of professional honors and charitable work, along with negative information that meets specific criteria: online evidence of racist remarks; references to drugs; sexually explicit photos, text messages or videos; flagrant displays of weapons or bombs and clearly identifiable violent activity.

According to Social Intelligence’s CEO, Max Drucker, its services “have turned up examples of people making anti-Semitic comments and racist remarks…. Then there was the job applicant who belonged to a Facebook group, ‘This Is America. I Shouldn’t Have to Press 1 for English.’”

I have not used Social Intelligence’s services, and I am not endorsing its product. What is appealing about it, though, is its professed ability to screen out protected EEO information:

Our technology allows us to turn around reports in 24 to 48 hours while still having social media activity about every job applicant manually reviewed. Social Intelligence Hiring presents employers with reports on only employer-defined objectionable material, such as racist remarks or behavior, explicit photos and video, and illegal activity. We flag job candidates associated with negative and positive material, filtering out their “protected class” information and reporting only relevant and desired data. Summary and detail views present easy-to-understand results, with screenshots of pertinent material.

Social Intelligence has sparked a lively debate on the Internet. The New York Times story alone has a whopping 258 comments to date. I participated in a discussion on Google+ about the New York Times article, where my opinion voicing the validity of checking employees’ social media activities was decidedly in the minority. The majority, who expressed privacy concerns, misses the mark. Social media is inherently public, and employees who do not tend to their online image risk an arduous job search.

If you want to learn more about the proper and improper uses of social media in the hiring process, Think Before You Click: Strategies for Managing Social Media in the Workplace is now available from Thompson Publishing. I also recommend part two of Stephanie Thomas’s Proactive Employer Podcast—the HR and Social Media Roundtable—airing live this Friday (July 29) at 8:30 am on BlogTalkRadio, and later available for on-demand listening at The Proactive Employer and via iTunes.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.