As it turns out, what happens on Facebook doesn't always stay on Facebook.
An emerging trend in pre-employment screening involves what some are calling social media checks, where as part of a background check, an investigating company will look into social media websites and other places on the Web for information about a prospective employee.
Some in the industry haven't embraced this niche and worry about its accuracy. At least one Spokane-area employment screening company, however, views it as a valuable tool for giving employers a more comprehensive portrait of a job applicant, as well as viewing it as a vehicle of growth for the company.
Spokane Valley-based Pinnacle Investigations Inc. began offering social media checks about a year ago, using a third-party Web platform that scans social media sites and blogs for an applicants' name and email address, then generates a report detailing whether it picked up any information on specific subjects.
Sabrina Sawyer, chief operating officer for Pinnacle Investigations, says mostly large employers have bought social media checks so far. Some smaller companies hiring for high-security or executive-level positions also have enlisted the search, which is conducted separate from criminal background checks, reference checks, and other pre-employment screening services. Conventional background checks typically cost $25 to $40 per person, and social media checks range in price from $35 to $100.
"I think it's going to grow exponentially," Sawyer says of social media checks. "More and more employers want to have it done."
She adds, "As this become more mainstream, it's going to become part of a company's 'due diligence.'"
Ryan Brewer, Pinnacle's director of sales and marketing, says the company uses technology developed by Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Social Intelligence Corp. to conduct its social media checks. Through that system, the company scans Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Photobucket, and a number of other sites for an applicant's name and provided email address.
While the term "social media checks" is used in the pre-employment screenings industry, Sawyer says, "You're looking at someone's Web footprint."
Such searches are looking both for positive and negative information on a job applicant, though the list of negative topics is much longer than the list of positive ones.
Broad topics for negative information a search looks for are corporate image disparagement, or slanderous comments about a current or past employer; poor communication skills, such as excessive grammatical errors; potentially violent behavior, like a flagrant display of weapons; unlawful activity, such as drug use; racist or discriminatory tendencies; and sexually explicit material.
On the positive side, such searches look for academic achievement, charitable activities, and professional recognition.
Brewer says such searches look for an extensive number of key words. For example, when looking to see whether a job applicant has discussed drug use on social media sites, it would search slang terms, such as joint, bowl, and bong, in addition to more formal terms like marijuana and cocaine.
With such searches, most employers are looking for an overall pattern of behavior, Brewer says.
"It offers a different perspective than a rap sheet," he says.
Some in the industry, however, haven't embraced social media checks.
Larry Lambeth, president of Spokane-based Employment Screening Services Inc., says the company has checked into vendors that offer social-media-check technology. He says, however, he hasn't seen a system yet that he'd be confident using.
Lambeth says one major concern is there isn't a foolproof way of verifying the accuracy of some of the information. For example, if a report finds a questionable picture of a job prospect on Facebook, he says, an employment screener doesn't know who took the picture, whether the person tagged in the photo is actually the job applicant, and whether the photo was manipulated with Photoshop or another photo editing program.
"To us, it's not worth the gamble of making a mistake in the wrong direction," Lambeth says.
He adds that the company has had a number of clients inquire about social media checks, but he has dissuaded them from pursuing such services.
"We point to examples of how it's misused, and most people see the wisdom in not doing it," Lambeth says.
Last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a ruling granting legal permission for background screening services to perform social media checks. Specifically, it determined that such searches are in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which governs pre-employment screening activities.
The searches are limited to information that's available in the public domain, and a job applicant must acknowledge and approve of a social media background check before it's performed, as is the case with criminal background or credit report checks.
Because such checks are limited to what is in a public domain, Brewer says it's possible for an individual to create privacy settings on social media sites so information they post can't be seen. Consequently, such information wouldn't show up in a social media background check.
However, if an individual is tagged in a photo with other people, and those people have public profiles, the information likely is still available.
"You'd be surprised how much is out there," Brewer says.
Mark Qualley, vice president and chief operating officer of Spokane Valley-based staffing agency Humanix Corp., says the company doesn't conduct formal social media checks. He says, however, the company has in the past conducted Web searches on job applicants to see what comes up, typically when hiring for a management or an executive position.
Qualley says he's aware of instances where the employers Humanix serves have performed similar searches. In one case recently, he says, the information gleaned from such a search turned out to be the deciding factor that put one job candidate ahead of another. He declines to disclose specifics, but in that case, he says, it was positive information that the employer encountered about one candidate that made the difference.
"What people need to learn is what they put up socially or publicly is available to many people," Qualley says.
Brewer says Pinnacle advises its clients and others not to "Google" job applicants in lieu of a federally compliant social media check.
A prospective employer who performs an independent Internet search inadvertently could stumble upon protected-class information, such as race, age, or religion. If that person isn't hired and somehow is aware of the search, they could come back to say they were discriminated against, Brewer contends.
In that case, he says, "If an applicant wants to cry foul, they have a great case."
In the formal social media checks, protected-class information is redacted from the reports, he says.
Qualley says, however, much of the information encountered isn't protected against discrimination. Even when it is, he says, "You follow your guidelines and stick to that whether you see them in person or see them on a social page."
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