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Are Social Media Background Checks Socially Irresponsible?

by karlyn on September 28, 2011

I found a very interesting article that was published in the Journal of Business Ethics last year titled “Employer’s use of social networking sites: A socially irresponsible practice.” The authors start by pointing out that employers have always been able to conduct background checks on potential employees, but the cost involved forced employers only to use them for serious candidates for jobs that necessitated background information. As social media entered our lives, the cost of background checks diminished, making it easy to conduct them online without applicants’ knowledge.

“In this article, we argue that, even though employers may have a legal right to use social networking sites in this way and future employees expect them to do so, it is wrong for employers to do this unless the information obtained in this manner is essential to the job.”

The article gives many examples of individuals experiencing the brunt of these types of checks:

  • Applicants having their job offers rescinded, noting the experience of a law student who’s firm found out the student was affiliated with a website that had negative statements about female law students, even though the student had not posted any offensive remarks.
  • A university swim team member being kicked off the team after posting negative comments about the coach on Facebook.
  • A flight attendant losing her job for posting a picture of herself in uniform.
  • A CNN producer being fired for blogging offwork, even though he didn’t identify himself as a CNN employee.

The authors surveyed human resources personal as a part of their research, and found that 43% used social networks to gain information about job applicants, but only 21% had ever received any training in how to do so, and only 5% had a policy in place governing the practice:

“The current practice of employers conducting online character checks…is harmful to society because it allows employers to be undetectable voyeurs to very personal information and make employment decisions based on that information. The acceptance of this practice would have a chilling effect and permanently render a promising communication medium inferior and dangerous for people to use…The current practice of unfettered checks further destroys a line between what is appropriate for the work realm and what should exist in one’s private realm. The current practice attacks a natural right of humans to have a personal space.”

Finally, the authors argue that if the background checks must continue, there should be guidelines, including the following:

  • Do not conduct a check unless the information is job related and the employer can justify a legitimate reason in court
  • Provide fair notice to the employee prior to the background check
  • Make sure the information obtained is accurate, complete and relevant
  • Keep promises of confidentiality
  • Restrict in-house access to information to those with legitimate interest in information
  • Discard outdated information
  • Avoid intrusive data collected

What do you think? Are these types of background checks socially irresponsible? Leave a comment!


Clark, L. A., & Roberts, S. J. (2010). Employer’s use of social networking sites: A socially irresponsible practice. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(4), 507-507-525. doi:10.1007/s10551-010-0436-y

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike McCready September 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

I think these tools are very important. If you hire an individual without any check on social networks, it’s possible that their comments and personal brand could be detrimental to your company brand.

There are a few points you mentioned that I think all HR staff should be aware: – staff should be properly trained how to use these networks
- a policy/guidelines should be in place
- make sure prospective employees realize upfront the process your HR department follows

Thanks for sharing this post.


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