Social Media Background Checks and You

When I started working with my current employer, I had to have a background check. The reason why is a bit ridiculous, in my opinion–apparently it has nothing to do with, say, data security (I’ve never had that kind of job), and everything with a failure to properly check references. So now, instead of doing a more thorough job of verifying the claims on resumes, we all get fingerprinted. Make what you will of that.

There’s a new kind of background check in town, and it makes those “be careful what you post” warnings sound a bit less paranoid. Social Intelligence, a one-year-old startup, conducts “social media background checks” for employers, collecting information available for the past seven years.

The idea is that you sign a waiver and the screening company reviews your social media presence, reporting back to the hiring organization–but leaving out information that can be discriminatory, such as race, pregnancy, disabilities, and so on. The benefit for the hiring organization is that they’re buffered from discrimination claims. The benefit for you is . . . well, I guess the benefit for you is that the interview remains the key point at which you might face discrimination in the hiring process.

So what kind of information are they collecting? That depends on what the employer wants. According to the company’s website:

Social Intelligence Corp solely generates reports based on employer pre-defined criteria, both positive and negative. Negative examples include racist remarks or activities, sexually explicit photos or videos, and illegal activity such as drug use. Positive examples include charitable or volunteer efforts, participation in industry blogs, and external recognition.

At the same time, this doesn’t remove the possibility for individual bias, personal interpretation, or simple human error. As Kelsey Blair writes for Social Times:

Who determines what constitutes aggressive or discriminatory? Is it participation in a Facebook group? It could be. Is it angry status updates? Absolutely. And who gets to decide? The good folks at Social Intelligence Corp, of course. According to Drucker “since our team are in fact human beings, they are able to discern to the best degree possible what ‘explicit’ means.” And what discriminatory means. And what violent means.

In writing about the process, the New York Times says that the review also may look for “flagrant displays of weapons or bombs and clearly identifiable violent activity.”

Here’s an example of where discretion comes in. What counts as “flagrant display of weapons”? Is it a picture of a soldier deployed in a war zone? Someone teaching their son or daughter about gun safety on a firing range? A group of friends getting ready to go hunting? A disgruntled employee outside the boss’s office door? That seems like a pretty wide range of behavior to me, but someone else might not make that distinction. And since a photo is literally a single moment in time, how do people conducting background checks know what the context is?

So those are some of the issues related to social media background searches. The next question: what do you do about it?

Well, to begin with, be aware that when you use social media, you are choosing how you present yourself to the world, and that the world may not see what you intend to show. That’s true regardless of whether the person looking is a potential employer or your Aunt Edna.

Next, take a look at your privacy settings. These firms are going to be looking at what they can see–you’re not handing over your login information.

And consider what information you’re providing employers to begin with. In his Gizmodo article “I Flunked My Social Media Background Check. Will You?” Mat Honan writes:

It only uses the data an employer gives it to run a search. This tends to be standard issue information from your resume. Your name, your university, your email address and physical location. Which means that, ultimately, you are the one supplying all the data for a background check. Because you are the one who supplies that data to your employer. And that means you should be smart about what kinds of contact information you put on your resume.

Your personal email address, especially if you’ve had it for a long time, could have all kinds of things tied to it that you’d rather an employer not see. Spend the nothing it costs to set up a dedicated job search email account, and list that one on your c.v.

Social media background checks are here to stay. Social Intelligence isn’t the only company providing them (a quick Google search turned up at least one other company), and the FTC is fine with the practice. So take a look at what you’re putting out there, who you’re sharing it with, and what’s on your resume. But you were doing that anyhow, right?

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Posted on August 2, 2011, in Social Media, Work and Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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