Due to the high cost of recruitment and turnover, along with the desire to make the best hiring decisions possible, many hiring managers are trying to “get to know” their applicants in advance through reviewing their postings on social media websites. Some sites, like LinkedIn and various alumni or trade association groups, are designed for just this type of research—however, when it comes to scouring Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for insights into your candidates, you might be exposing yourself to risk due to Title VII and other protections, and insertions of bias into your decision making process. In this case as in many others, the law lags behind technology so you must allow ethical considerations and common sense to guide your decision-making. Eventually the law will catch up, and you could be in a precarious position if you do not come up with a proactive policy.

The most obvious risk in this scenario is violating Title VII protections. These specifically prohibit an employer from discriminating based on an applicant’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also prohibits discrimination against people based on their disabilities. These protections are compromised, either in fact or in appearance, by an employer who determines something via social media which they might not have found out through the regular hiring process. For example, not all conditions or disabilities are apparent to the naked eye (epilepsy, depression, or COPD, for example), but could be uncovered through reviewing an applicant’s posts on social media.

Two specific, related cognitive biases should concern hiring managers here. First, there is a substantial risk for implicit prejudice to come into play, making associations that are not necessarily true. Our own preconceptions are often unrecognized—we see someone who dresses a certain way and we make assumptions about their personality, for example. We may, through no conscious decision on our part, rule someone out as a candidate based on nothing more than what they wore in a photo online. Second, we often overestimate our own ethicality. Research has shown negative profiles (images of drinking, use of profanity in posts, etc.) have a much more powerful impact on hiring managers than more neutral profiles, so these reactions are common and often beyond our control.

Social media is not designed to be a background check; therefore, there is an inability to prove from an HR standpoint that the data reviewed is relevant to the job description. Additionally, given that many people do not leave a clear online path to follow, there is no real way of verifying you are accessing and reviewing the correct person online. The idea of a hiring decision made on data which is not only irrelevant to the job description but which belongs to an entirely different person should be of significant concern.

There are ways to gain a deeper understanding of your applicants—for some roles, an industry-specific assessment such as Insight’s Correction Selection Inventory (for roles in the corrections industry) or Premium Care Selection (designed especially for senior care positions) can offer you much more relevant and precise information than you could ever hope to glean from Facebook or Twitter. For other positions, you can get targeted information on pertinent job performance behaviors from one of Insight’s integrity assessments, such as QuikStaff, Integrity Plus, or iServe. These come with the added bonus of being legally validated and compliant with all current labor laws, so you can trust the information you’re receiving and feel secure in using it to make your hiring process flow more smoothly.

As always, work with your legal team if you’re unsure of the risks associated with any hiring policy, but excluding the use of social media to research your applicants will protect you from legal concerns, ethical landmines, and from potentially missing out on a great employee.