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Why It's a Mistake to Rely on a 'Social-Media Background Check' Social media rarely is the complete picture of anyone and relying on it in hiring risks legal problems.

By Eric Sachs Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

izusek | Getty Images

Over the last decade, social-media profiles slowly have become our online personas. Filled with everything from our beliefs to where we spent last weekend, our feeds on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram represent to the world a core component of who we are.

As these social-media networks expand, they're more likely to reveal certain information that employers might use to prescreen job candidates. Laura Russell, president of IMI Data Search, put it this way: "People are becoming more aware of the value of knowing the history of their employees." It brings up an important question: How much faith should potential employers put into so-called "social-media background checks?"

Despite these sites' growing popularity, reviewing a person's accounts for human-resources reasons presents a variety of issues for employers. With so much information freely available online, traditional background checks might seem unnecessary. But business owners (big and small) should keep in mind some benefits of a more official approach to vetting future team members.

Related: Effective Background Checks: 5 Factors to Consider

Drawbacks of 'social-media background checks.'

It makes sense that employers would be willing to rely on social-media background checks to some degree. One of the most appealing aspects of social media is the glimpse it gives us into an individual's personality.

If you've a position to fill, interviewing your candidate is a great start. No doubt you or someone in your company is well-trained in this aspect of the hiring process. Unfortunately, there's a good chance your candidate has had his or her fair share of training as well.

An incomplete picture. In reality, an interview usually lets you see only part of the picture. Your candidate typically puts on a bit of a performance. Nothing against these prospective hires -- each obviously wants to put a best foot forward. The person sitting across from you is unlikely to lie, but you can bet that individual is looking for any comment that will make you think he or she is the most attractive choice for your company.

Business leaders must be aware of this dynamic and do everything in their power to ensure they get a more robust view of each candidate. To do so, they need to access details beyond what they see on a CV or in an interview.

Related: What Comes Up When You Google Your Name? 4 Tips for Managing Your Online Identity.

No dialogue. It's tempting to rely on social-media sites for greater context. While the average person's accounts aren't likely to include much information relevant to employability, posts and pages can expand your understanding of the individual. Think of it as an extension of your previous interview -- a follow-up with none of the dialogue.

What you learn rarely will give you any real insight into how good a person is at her or his job. And that's assuming you can find the right person online. You'd be amazed how many people have the same name.

Curated pages. If you manage to find your candidate, you'll very likely face a series of privacy settings that ensure you'll learn next to nothing about the individual. Even then, bear in mind the real issue of curated pages. Forget about the extreme cases of fake profiles. People with lax privacy settings typically are very careful about what they post. Is this great for demonstrating professionalism? Sure, but it won't make the hiring process any easier.

The issue here is a serious lack of transparency and objectivity. Potential employees can present themselves however they choose on social media, and employers have no choice but to take what they see at face value. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to discovering an applicant's criminal history. This is a crucial point for many business owners, and screening efforts that don't offer this information are incomplete at best.

Related: How to Keep Yourself Safe from Fake LinkedIn Profiles

Legal liability. Don't forget the biggest issue of all: the potential for discrimination claims. Most employers are uncertain which items on social-media profiles are valid, legal grounds for making hiring or firing decisions. Privacy laws regarding online content are generally unclear. Depending on a social-media review alone can end up being quite a mess for business owners.

Why background checks remain relevant.

A real background check will give employers access to detailed data sets. In addition to current information about an applicant, companies that run background checks often retain several expunged records in their databases. Granted, this information can't be used as grounds for hiring or firing, but it does serve to verify the unprecedented access these companies contain.

Employment history. Another benefit of background checks? They have the capacity to confirm an applicant's employment history. These employment checks are particularly valuable to employers in intensive sectors that demand key qualifications. While this often is presented in the form of a standard criminal-record check, this component sometimes can extend into character statements and spot checks of legally accessible health records.

Employer protections. Plenty of perks come along with complete background checks, but one of the most underappreciated is the built-in protection against discrimination claims. You can use a variety of free, online tools to screen potential job candidates. But make no mistake: If you're not familiar with the world of discrimination claims, you're exposing your business to a potential issue. If you accidentally or unknowingly use certain information to make hiring or firing decisions, there's a chance that applicants and employees alike can file a discrimination claim against your business.

Related: Hiring Requires Choices and Not Every Choice Is Discrimination

If you're not comfortable handling every aspect of the background-check process on your own, working with a professional service is your best bet. Not convinced you might need a helping hand? You may want to consider the long-term financial and legal consequences of missteps that could result from going it on your own.

Information acquired by self-managed social-media searches or otherwise unauthorized searches presents a minefield of potential legal issues. Laws are in place to protect both applicants and employees from discrimination. You need to be aware of these before, during and after any employment decision. Professional services have a system for properly identifying potential red flags and reporting them efficiently and promptly. Their people know exactly how they can proceed to keep them -- and your company -- on the right side of the law.

Related: Do Your Homework on Yourself: Background Checks for Businesses

There's certainly a case for checking out social-media sites to gain a better understanding of your team's talent pool. But these social-media background checks are an incomplete way to assess applicants and can open the door to a host of issues you don't want to deal with (and shouldn't have to).

Eric Sachs

Entrepeneur; Founder and CEO SachsMarketingGroup

Eric Sachs is a self-taught, nationally recognized SEO expert who helps businesses revolutionize their online marketing efforts. He began his career in internet marketing in affiliate work and then as the Director of Marketing for a Southern California lead generation company. In 2010 he created his own SEO and digital marketing company, Sachs Marketing Group.


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