We all have friends who get a little trigger-happy on Twitter, but should what they post online count against them in job interviews? The answer is a resounding “maybe.”

Social media is ubiquitous now in both our personal and professional lives. However, people forget that what they post doesn’t always stay in the social sphere for which it was intended. It’s easy to keep posts appropriate on channels like LinkedIn, but slip-ups happen with startling regularity on other platforms. As employers and the government increasingly turn their attention toward social media, job seekers need to be cognizant of what their online presence says about them.

Companies with high public profiles realized some time ago that managing social media was an important step to controlling their images and avoiding damaging incidents. Meanwhile, social media has even been creeping into the realm of national security. In March 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the State Department to perform social media checks on visa applicants. Even crossing the U.S. border may mean handing over devices and passwords to social media accounts.

Suffice it to say, posting online carries a great responsibility. Our social media activities are public, searchable, and lasting. With all this personal information floating around, employers stand to learn more about candidates than ever before.

Considerations for Employers

A social media background check allows for a more detailed picture of an applicant’s habits, views, and past indiscretions. It may confirm a perfect fit – or reveal evidence of drug use or harassment issues. A social media background check can be a chance to protect your current employees, your customers, and your company.

There is a drawback, though: A mishandled social media background check can leave your company vulnerable to lawsuits. As always, hiring decisions cannot be based on any information related to factors such as age, sex, disability, race, nationality, or marital status – characteristics you can easily glean from candidates’ social media accounts. Even if you decide not to hire someone for unrelated reasons after performing a social media check, that candidate could still potentially sue you for discrimination.

Keeping Your Social Media Background Checks in the Clear

The advantages of surveying a job seeker’s social media presence can outweigh the risks if you follow a few best practices. Here are three things you should do to carry out social media background checks correctly:

Magnifying Glass1. Know Whom to Check

Looking at social media makes sense for some positions more than for others. A role that is public-facing or that has the potential to reflect on your company’s image is an obvious choice for review.

When you’re hiring senior vice presidents, C-suite executives, board members, PR reps, marketers, or brand leaders, it’s probably a good idea to invest in social media background checks. Conversely, you probably don’t need to check social media for more anonymous positions. The Twitter account of a junior engineer or administrative assistant is less likely to jeopardize your company’s reputation.

2. Know When to Check

Save the social media background checks for the last stage of your hiring process. You can minimize your risk by waiting to look at an applicant’s online presence until you’re ready to make a final decision. At this point, you’ve conducted interviews and know the potential hire’s relative age, disability status, and so on. It would be difficult for a candidate to prove that information on their Facebook profile led to discriminatory hiring decisions when the social media check was one of the last steps in the process.

3. Know How to Check

The Federal Trade Commission has ruled that it is acceptable for employers to conduct social media checks with the same legal restrictions that govern regular background checks. You must get consent, provide copies to the potential hire on request, have a dispute resolution mechanism in place, and follow all other rules in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Given the possible consequences wrapped up in social media background checks, your process needs to be effective and protect you from legal challenges. Some background check options are unreliable and may give you only a portion of the full picture. For example, a cheap tool that searches for criminal records won’t give you much more than a guess at whether your potential hire has broken the law. A full social media background check will give you a much more real sense of a hire’s character, conduct, and criminal history.

It’s best to hire a private investigator, but be sure you hire a reputable one if you do. Just as you take on risks conducting a check of your own, you’re responsible for a vendor that runs a check for you. Employers are legally liable for third-party methods that violate the law. Utilizing the right service will help you avoid unlawful practices.

When done properly, examining an applicant’s online presence during the hiring process can save you a headache down the road. If you take a few measures to obtain and use the information correctly, you’ll learn much more about candidates without exposing your company to potential legal issues. A social media background check could be the difference between the perfect candidate and a PR nightmare.

Danny Boice is the cofounder and CEO of Trustify, which provides private investigators on demand. 

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