Skip to content
​Flickr photo by rutty

Preemployment Screening and Social Media

While it’s not a standard practice to consider potential employee’s social media presence during the application process, it might become so in the future as technology continues to improve and people spend more and more time interacting online. That was the focus of an ASIS International Information Asset Protection and Pre-Employment Screening Council (IAPPES) conference call. “It’s a reality that that data trail is going to start to be crunched and munched by computers and people are going to start making decisions on those things,” says Dr. Charles Handler, executive scientist for Logi-Serve, LLC. “And many of us psychologists are both thrilled and scared by this.”

Handler, who holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Louisiana State University, says this topic has been on his mind after reading an article about a new form of credit selection where some companies are predicting and giving credit to people based on their friends on Facebook and their friends’ credit scores. Handler says it’s only a matter of time until people in charge of making hiring decisions begin to do the same thing—using applicants’ LinkedIn and Facebook profiles to evaluate them, which could lead to consequences. They might be tempted to conclude that those with deadbeat friends may be more likely to be deadbeats, but “that’s kind of scary, because you can’t make those absolute assumptions,” he says. He cautions that using social media may not be the most rational way to evaluate whether someone is qualified to have a particular job.

It may also open an employer up to legal challenges, but the legal landscape in that regard has yet to be fully formed. This aspect of the problem wasn’t the focus of the conference call, but Security Management reached out to Les Rosen, an attorney and president of Employment Screening Resources, for some perspective on that.

Thirty six states have introduced laws, or have legislation pending, that prevent employers from requiring employees to provide them with their social media account passwords after they’re hired, but there is still a lack of legislation about using social media in the hiring process, says Rosen. And while there have been a few court cases involving employee use of social media after they have been hired and what employers can do, there have not been cases addressing the use of social media activity or content as a disqualifier in the hiring process, he explains.

“The legal landscape leaves employers largely without clear direction other than the password laws, so employers need to apply existing laws to determine risk,” Rosen says, adding that it can take a while for a body of law to emerge, especially with new technology. So “employers need to see a number of cases from different jurisdictions before a clear pattern is established.”

But companies don’t appear to be waiting. Even as far back as 2011, according to a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, 30 percent indicated that they used “social networking information to disqualify job candidates,” according to, a white paper written by Employment Screening Resources in 2012. The paper also noted that at that time, there had been no court decisions on the issue of using an applicant’s Internet presence as a factor in the hiring process.

Instead of using social media activity as a disqualifier, however, Handler says that companies need to hold all of their employment screening tools to a higher standard and ensure that applicants are being evaluated in a standardized way that tests the skills that are critical to successful job performance. To do this, Handler, recommends that all employers use some form of pre-employment screening tests that allow them to develop scenarios, or tests, for applicants to take to see how they react in certain situations and how they could be expected to perform in the work environment.

These tests aren’t 100 percent accurate, but Handler says that, even with limited accuracy, they can help employers sort through applicants in a standardized method and provide a return on investment. Screening is a four-step process for Handler, with the first defining what you want the screening tool to measure, the second developing a method that tests that ability that you want to measure, the third compiling the data in an understandable format using algorithms to see how candidates measure up against one another, and the fourth using that data to make an informed hiring decision.

“The bottom line is you’ve got to choose good measures that map onto the definition of what you are trying to measure, and then you’ve got to use that data to support the decision making,” Handler emphasizes, adding that those in charge of hiring don’t always follow this process. “I’ve seen it too many times where the first two steps are done and then, you know there’s no support for change management needed, or buy-in needed, from the decision makers and the data that’s been collected and all that work goes for naught.”

Screening can also help prevent employers from taking on a “catastrophic hire” that could do serious damage to their company. “We talk about the concept of a catastrophic hire—one person who blows up the cruise ship or misplaces an I-beam that causes a bridge to collapse—the idea that if you can even just screen out that one person who ends up doing a multiplier of negativity to your company, that’s also extremely valuable,” he says.

Of course, screening methods aren’t at a level of reliability that they can really ensure those bad apples will never get hired, but they may still help reduce the risk that they will be hired.

Most important is to look at the big picture—or the whole person—to assess their abilities, not just one aspect, such as social media presence, Handler said. “I really take what I call a big picture, or a whole person approach, where we use multiple tools staged within a process such that the entire process is set up in a way that supports layers of information that collectively build toward a picture of an applicant’s suitability for a job.”