social media snooping

Social or Anti-Social: An Employer’s Right to Know About an Employee’s Social Media Activity

The events of Jan. 6 took many people by surprise. Yet investigations into the social media activity of those plotting and participating in the infiltration of the Capitol showed the warning signals were literally and figuratively on the wall.

What if an employee of yours was posting that kind of rhetoric on social media sites? Would you want to know? If you did know, what could you do?

Screening your employee’s social media activity is a proverbial slippery slope. There’s the argument that what they do on their own time is their business, but there’s an equally valid point that the behavior of your staff can reflect on your company and even damage its brand.

That said, many employers are hesitant to screen the social media activity of staff members. Employers will informally screen the social media activity of applicants as part of the hiring process, but this tactic can expose an employer to a slew of legal issues and put them at risk of violating EEO-protected class information — even if the practice is fairly routine, unofficially.

How routine?

According to a survey by CareerBuilder, 70% of all employers use social media to screen their candidates, and more than 50% said they found something that made them pass on a candidate. Other studies on this topic put the percentage closer to 69%.

Yet the damage of having a staff member involved in any number of unsavory online practices — hate speech, insults, bullying, obscene and toxic language, political speech, threats of violence, explicit images, etc.— can damage a company’s reputation.

According to the Work Institute’s 2021 Retention Report, we are in a time of high voluntary turnover as it is. Add to that the cost of a bad hire and the ultimate turnover that follows from that, and what you have is a talent problem that can cost the organization a startling amount of money. According to most estimates, it takes about six months to unearth the fact that a bad hire has been made and costs roughly one-third of their first-year salary to replace them.

With this in mind, screening social media to determine a person’s suitability for hire is rational, albeit towing an ethics line that is not as black and white as a balance sheet.

Professional screening companies use algorithms and human review to quickly search for things like bullying, hate speech, illegal activity and drug use while avoiding images and text that may identify religious affiliation, sexual orientation, pregnancy, health issues and age, which cannot be considered when making a hiring decision.

A post that includes a photo of your applicant siphoning gas from a police cruiser or publishing a post disparaging someone else’s race may be useful in assessing an applicant’s character. However, a photo of a female applicant wearing a Hijab or a post by a man coming out as gay would never make it into a professional screener’s report. Should they be accused of taking adverse action or basing an employment decision on information that is illegal to consider, it would put an employer in the position of needing to defend themselves.

There are options for employers who wish to screen the social media activity of applicants and staff members. Many companies offer a social media screening/monitoring component to background checks that shield the employer from overreach.

Still, it’s an added expense that many employers, ravaged by months of reduced business during the pandemic, have to consider — particularly in a job market where there are simply not enough candidates with the experience or qualifications they seek. Employers have landed in an unenviable position, debating between respecting privacy and ignoring the social media activity of an otherwise qualified candidate or passing on them in fear that there may be fire behind the smoke on their social media feed.

Ultimately, the employer has to ask what costs them more:

  • A candidate with a sketchy social media past who could damage the company’s reputation and be a detriment to other staff members
  • A candidate with fewer qualifications or not hiring anybody at all, which impacts the business and current staff members

It’s a difficult choice. In a time of political extremes and a growing number of people struggling with mental health, an increasing number of employers would rather have the data in front of them about a candidate or employee’s social media activity than not.

How to Monitor

The idea that social media is an avenue of expression for young people is now outdated. Generations from Baby Boomers to Gen Z are on social media, posting their opinions and personal details for the world to see. Where they post or consume social media content, however, differs by generation.

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z spends most of its time on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. This platform delineation is notable as most employers typically monitor LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter when searching for red flags. While LinkedIn is most relevant to workplace conduct, the other two have proven to be hotbeds for posts showcasing volatility and extreme views. This emphasis on LinkedIn also explains why employers are still struggling to understand Gen Z.

For other generations, Facebook is by far the most prominent social media platform, with YouTube once again a close second among Millennials. With the emergence of TikTok, companies now have even more platforms to monitor as employees can express themselves in a wide variety of ways across various mediums that speak to their colleagues and future generations differently.

To tackle this challenge would require a full-time staff monitoring employee activity at many companies, as well as training staff on social media policies and best practices. HR professionals would also need to develop procedures around potential infractions of said policies. In the end, automation will help play a role, as will third-party vendors not involved with hiring decisions.

Involving internal and external processes is key as there are ramifications for laws enforced by the EEOC when looking at social media activity and examining the suitability of an employee or candidate.

Moving forward, the prevalence of examining publicly available social media profiles when looking at prospective hires will only grow. Ensuring diversity and inclusion of people from all backgrounds and perspectives will come down to internal practices, policies, and employees’ education around their use of social media.


David SawyerDavid Sawyer is the owner of Safer Places, Inc., a full-service firm that provides pre-employment screening, security consulting, tenant screening, and additional verification services for schools, private and public companies, property managers, property owners, and anyone seeking to research an individual’s background.




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