HR professionals have a responsibility to their employers to protect and safeguard their business or organisation from potential future problems. Certain due diligence should be conducted on a prospective employee’s social media profiles prior to providing them with a contract of employment. Background checks on potential employees’ social media are used by companies to mitigate reputational risk, and to consider how an employee may align to the company culture and values, ultimately to help prevent costly mis-hires.
With this in mind, we collaborated with 6 third-party HR and social media specialists to discover why employers action social media checks on prospective employees, also giving advice on best practice for prospective employees, including the process to follow to complete a thorough ‘social media MOT’. Read on to find out more…
Social Media Checks
Charles Eason commented that “the industries and sectors where we have seen the strongest uptake in Social Media Background Checks primarily mirror the industries where DBS Checks (previously known as CRB Checks) are compulsory or heavily advisory. Industries where employees engage directly with vulnerable people, children or money are some of the most important for checking. Additionally, there is an increase in social media checking where staff are noticeably in the public eye, such as sports teams, political teams, or company spokespersons”.
Jessica Brewser added that “they are predominantly used in larger companies, but it also depends on the industry and the position that a job seeker is applying for, so regulated industries such as financial services, and senior positions are more likely to have deeper social media background checks. That said most businesses will look at applicants’ LinkedIn profiles and the majority of employers also use search engines to research job candidates.”
Charles continued to share that “the research stage expands across the entire world wide web as checks seek to establish historic behavioural traits to enable us to understand the user’s online cognitive style. By utilising a user’s entire digital footprint, these checks can identify historic examples of things such as extreme views, hate speech and other inappropriate or undesirable content”. While the vast majority of employment screening and research is from the most recognised social media platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok), research looks at all sites where you submit a public profile. Charles added that “this can include eBay, Amazon, Blogging Platforms, Soundcloud, Forum spaces and more”.
Anthony Sutton shared that “in each case you are seeing people in their natural environment and as such it probably gives you an indication regarding what they’re like and as such whether they will fit into the culture and values of your organisation”. Sean Butcher added that “whilst LinkedIn tends to remain the ‘professional’ platform for most people, you can gain a good insight into their beliefs and values through the type of content they post and share”. Remember, that if you recruit someone that does not align with the values of your organisation, it will start to cause problems very quickly. Sean added that “it sends a message to your existing employees that these values are little more than lip service and can cause lasting damage to your culture”.
Jessica continued that “basically, employers are looking to see that the candidate they are interviewing is really who they say they are, and of course they are looking out for any red flags such as criminal behaviour, posting inappropriate photos or videos, any extreme views or discriminatory comments”.
The main risks looked for during social media checks include:
- Extreme Views / Opinions
- Hate & Discriminatory Behaviour
- Inappropriate / Undesirable Content
- Illegal Activities
- Addiction & Substance Abuse
- Violent Content
- Sexually Explicit Content
‘Extreme views’ is a very broad category which would likely incorporate ‘hate and discriminatory behaviour’. This is one of the most common social media background check fails, as extreme views or hate speech can be shared with a greater ease and with less thought. In recent years, professional sports players have been banned from playing for club and/or country for sharing homophobic views or racially prejudicial views; but this isn’t exclusive to public figures, many people have lost their jobs through sharing discriminatory or extreme behaviour.
Illegal activities of any kind posted online (where you can be seen or presumed to be participating or endorsing the content) is a risk to your employer. Videos of you participating in substance abuse would constitute an illegal activity, as would any proof of criminal damage, trespassing, and so on.
Andrew Fennell added that you should also check for and remove risqué content (such as explicit photos and videos of you or others), and strong political posts – “in general it’s best to remove these as you don’t know the political leanings of the hiring manager or your potential new teammates. The exception to this rule would be if you were applying to a social justice role or campaigning, for example”. Elena Kale suggests to “always try to stay as neutral as possible when it comes to personal views on politics, news items and any particular trends – before pressing send on that post, stop to think how your opinion could be taken by different parties”.
Andrew also recommends reviewing drunken photos/videos, as these can also potentially impact success when applying for roles. Jessica reiterated that “it is important to always show respect and be mindful of how things can be perceived – what might appear an inside joke to you, may not appear that way to others”.
Elena continued that “globally brands are moving away somewhat from the slick, filtered content we’ve seen over the last few years, and becoming much more ”real” and authentic. Although we’re now more connected than ever, in many ways we’re craving even more meaningful connections so create content that’s genuine and “real” but remember there’s a fine line between oversharing and professionalism, even on your personal pages. Share your personality but keep your views neutral”.
Andrew commented that “it’s not just your own posts you need to be careful of. Be careful when retweeting and sharing/support of other people’s posts and check what you’re tagged in, especially with old Facebook photos”.
Social Media Best Practice
Andrew shared that “younger Millennials and Gen Z will have spent most of their teenage years online. That means all the mistakes people make in their younger years are often posted online for all to see – therefore, a social media MOT is essential before applying for jobs”.
Based on the above, Jessica’s view is that reviewing your social media should be an extension of your application process – she recommends that “the starting point is to make sure that your LinkedIn profile matches your CV and is up to date. There is lots of opportunity on LinkedIn to build your network and showcase your work, take advantage of this and it should be the main focus as you embark on your job search. The next step is to do a Google search of your name with relevant factors such as location, industry, current employer, job title and see what comes up”.
When it comes to completing a ‘social media MOT’, Charles’ opinion is that it is better being proactive is better than reactive, and encourages prospective employees to ask themselves the below questions before posting content online:
- Would I say/do this in real life?
- How would I judge someone else who posted/did this?
- Would I be embarrassed to discuss this content/activity with my future employer?
If you are in doubt over whether or not the content is appropriate, Charles says to “err on the side of caution, and don’t post it”.
Jessica continued that “you also want to be checking your privacy settings and seeing how much information is available to the wider world outside of your connections. How much an employer can see will also depend on your privacy settings for your various accounts. If they conduct a professional social media background check (with an external background checking service) you can expect that they will be looking deeper into things including what others may post about you and your comments across various platforms”.
Andrew corroborated this advice – “to be safe, lock down all your profiles with strict privacy settings and ensure you’re presenting an image of yourself that is hireable”. Elena also suggested to “make sure you enable the option to review any photos in which you’re tagged (on Facebook) so you can choose whether they appear on your timeline. You can control what you post, but you can’t always control what other people post (especially with the increase in online scams and fake profiles)”.
Jessica suggests “remove anything that you feel no longer aligns with who you are now. As you go through your online footprint, think to yourself ‘is this who I am and is it how I want to be perceived’? You may want to take opportunities to be part of podcasts, blogs or articles that will position you well to a prospective employer”. Elena added that “if you follow best practices on a day-to-day basis, you’ll only need to do this MOT once”.
Elena also mentioned that “whilst you can delete the original post, you can’t control where that initial data has been viewed or potentially saved”. Jessica concluded with a similar disclaimer that “any deleted information can potentially be found if someone is looking hard enough (but unless it was a high-security role this would be fairly unlikely). Most employers are not looking to trip you up, they just want to make sure that you are the best candidate for the job, which is why it is an opportunity for you to showcase your talents and experience. Companies are not allowed to discriminate, and they do have to respect your privacy”.
With thanks to the 6 experts who provided their insight for this article, including:
- Andrew Fennell, former recruiter, and director at StandOut CV
- Anthony Sutton, founder and managing director of Cream HR
- Charles Eason, managing director of CareCheck
- Elena Kale, director at Inspired Marketing & Media Ltd
- Jessica Brewer, founder of Emiz HR & Coaching
- Sean Butcher, people development and culture consultant, and founder of Reflect Consultancy