Social Media Background Checks
Clever tool or legal minefield?

Editor's note: Mike McCarty is an "Ask the Expert" on our sister site and the founder and CEO of Safe Hiring Solutions, a professional provider of background checks for churches, nonprofits, and other organizations and individuals. Recently Mike posted an article on his blog site discussing the pros and cons of using social media sites for background checks. Because of his expertise in this area and the timely nature of the topic, we are making his article available as a guest post here for our readers.

How many of us have narrowed our hiring decision to a single candidate and then done a Google search of the applicant's name and bounced from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter and the blogosphere to see what else we can learn?

The internet is the Wild West 2.0, a wide open, unregulated, and unfiltered expanse of 160+ million blogs, 80,000 new blogs daily, 550 million Facebook users, 67 million MySpace users, 41 million LinkedIn users, 490 million YouTube users logging 92 billion (that's a 'b'–billion!) YouTube views per month.

An organization would be crazy not to peek into the social media window.

The benefits of social media background checks are obvious:

  • Documents due diligence. Reduces negligent hiring and negligent retention.
  • Gives glimpse into applicant's head. We get an unvarnished look inside the head of an applicant that reveals their thoughts, opinions, hobbies and interests.
  • Unfiltered character check. People have applied the "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" principal to social media. Nobody is looking but friends, right? Twitter and Facebook can provide a quick way to know if your prospective youth pastor is posting nude photos online.

Without a doubt, social media checks help fill important gaps in information for prospective staff and volunteers. But before jumping on the social media background check bandwagon, there are some pitfalls to consider:

  • Too much information. May contain photos of applicant that reveals age, race or a disability; or postings might be related to personal religious beliefs or ethnicity. You may be learning and seeing information that cannot be the legal basis for a hiring decision.
  • Legal implications of social media screening.
  • Discrimination: If a decision not to hire is based on race, ethnicity, nationality, marital status, religious preference or age.
  • Privacy: Yes, even on the internet there can be a reasonable expectation of privacy since most social media sites require "friending" for access.
  • Authenticity: This could be a huge obstacle with common and even not so common names. How do you know the social media sites belong to your applicants? There are many, many people with the same names. Google yourself to see what I mean.

Recent Social Media Lawsuits

  • Cisco Systems sued after one of their attorney's blogged about two opposing lawyers who had sued Cisco.
  • Georgia School Dist. sued after they terminated a teacher who had a photo of herself drinking a glass of wine on her Facebook page. It was a vacation photo from Italy.
  • NJ Restaurant sued after firing two employees for negative postings about the restaurant on their MySpace pages.

No doubt there is information on prospective employees' social media sites that could be critical to a hiring decision. However, it is a legal minefield that requires wisdom in discerning the extent of its use. Reputable background screening firms no longer include social media screenings as part of the background check process because the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires these companies to provide accurate information. Based on the fact that it's difficult to validate the identity and authenticity of individuals' social media pages, these sites are not considered accurate means for ascertaining valid screening information.

How about your church? Are you conducting social media background checks? Have you denied hiring an applicant because of social media postings? Comment and let us know what you've learned.

This article originally appeared on and was used with permission. To learn more about the legal implications of using social media for churches, see the downloadable resource Using Social Media Safely on our sister site

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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