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Social media checks - What are they and why are they important?

2020 has shone a spotlight on social media like never before

From our reliance on digital platforms to connect during lockdown, to the rise of misinformation and the growing pressure on platforms to tackle the impacts.

  • Over 3 billion people worldwide use social media

  • Prior to the pandemic people were spending on average 2 hours 22 minutes on social networks and messaging each day. There’s evidence to suggest this has increased significantly in 2020.

  • In the UK, the number of social media users is expected to reach nearly 51 million by 2025 with YouTube and Facebook currently leading the way.

The world is changing rapidly but are companies adapting too slowly when it comes to protecting their staff, customers and brand reputation?

Almost every applicant, for every job role, has a sizeable social media presence. Spanning everything from well-known platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok, to more niche services like gaming sites. These accounts provide a wealth of information about an applicant’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.

You can learn a lot about an applicant from their social media profiles and activity. Not surprisingly, it’s becoming increasingly common for employers to review applicants’ social media footprints as part of the recruitment process. Social media checks are becoming an increasingly important tool in the armoury of any business to prevent risk as they evolve cultures and working practices. But are these reviews being done correctly, fairly and compliantly?

What is a social media check?

A professional social media check reduces risks to brand, reputation, confidentiality breach and data security.

The check identifies a candidate’s online presence to look for negative behaviours such as bullying, racism, nudity and excessive bad language. It also identifies potential privacy issues, such as leaking information, and content that could potentially damage your company’s reputation.

A social media check is designed to complement the range of standard recruitment checks that employers usually carry out, from CV screening and references, to ID and criminal record checks. The checks complete the picture of an applicant, giving the employer valuable insight into how a person is likely to behave in the workplace.

As well as checking affiliations with proscribed organisations and groups linked to violence or extremism for example, a professional social media check also looks at how widely a candidate is connected and the risks posed by their connections, and any endorsement of illegal activity such as drugs, theft, weapons and fraud.

Experian professional social media checks use screening and online behaviour evaluation tools to fairly and objectively assess a candidate’s social media profile. Presented in an easy to interpret report, the social media check can highlight a potential risk to an employer, without breaching the trust of the candidate. It also provides confidence to an employer that a candidate isn’t a risk that could possibly damage their reputation, breach company policy, or have an adverse impact on client relations.

Why are social media background checks important?

Conducting social media checks is important for a number of different reasons and the reasons why businesses carry out social media checks should relate to the challenges that they face around risk, such as:

  • Security – risks can range from hiring someone linked to a Proscribed organisation or illegal activities, to a candidate who could expose your company to bribery, corruption or fraud.

  • Behaviour – the risk from an individual’s negative behaviour can have far-reaching consequences for your staff, your customers and your brand. For example, if they breach company policy, showcase undesirable characteristics or leak confidential information.

  • Integrity – an adverse media story can damage a company’s reputation many years down the line, linking your brand with sexist or racist behaviour for example. Social media checks are also a useful way to validate information shared by a candidate, helping you gauge more intangible qualities like trust.

One company’s risk is another’s benefit

While many of these risks are common to all employers, others are more sector and role specific. For example, hiring a candidate linked to an animal rights group could be beneficial to an animal welfare organisation, but presents a potential risk to a pharmaceutical business. Context is key, especially as socio-economic debates become more complex and divisive.

In-house online social media checks – a very grey area for employers

While the business case for carrying out social media checks is becoming increasingly clear, many companies aren’t using a professional expert service. The temptation for many recruiters is to simply dash to an applicant’s social media accounts and begin scanning for information. After all, given that the information is readily available, why not look it up yourself?

This DIY approach is risky for a number of reasons and means that businesses are missing out on the benefits of professional social media checks:

  • ‘Googling’ applicants could breach regulations and legislation and the random results won’t give you a complete picture of an individual. It may also lead you to view the social media profile of the wrong person.

  • The way you interpret the results of a DIY online search are likely to be subjective, based on a recruiter’s own perceptions and beliefs. If you see something you personally don’t like, how can you unsee it, before making your recruitment decision?

  • As well as potentially being uncompliant from a regulatory and legislative point of view, the subjective nature of DIY checks mean that businesses could be missing out on hiring the best candidates.

Carrying out social media checks in-house – what’s allowed?

Professional social media checks are much more sophisticated than in-house checks, using smart-search technologies and behaviour analysis tools. They’re designed to remain compliant with legislation and HR guidelines.

In their guidance for employers, the CIPD recommendations shine a spotlight on several challenges with carrying out online checks in-house:

  • Online information may not always be accurate, up to date or provide context.

  • It can be difficult to know if the information you’ve found online relates to your candidate, especially if they have a popular name. It can also be hard to find information if it’s been shared under a different name or alias.

  • Your candidate should have the right to respond to any information found online. If the check isn’t handled appropriately, this could significantly impact trust and the recruitment process.

  • Candidates need to be informed, at an early stage, that online searches may be conducted by your organisation. Discrimination, data protection and privacy laws apply equally to recruitment checks carried out online or offline. There should be a legal basis for checking social media profiles and any data collected must be proportionate, necessary and relevant.

  • Online searches shouldn’t be a ‘fishing expedition’ – they need to be aimed at assessing a candidate’s suitability for the role.

The benefits of outsourcing professional social media checks

By using a third-party partner to carry out your social media checks professionally, you’ll get an objective, compliant, complete and consistent assessment of your candidate. That means you can openly discuss the results of the check and any associated issues with your candidate and they’ll be part of the process from the word go. Our professional social media checks are designed and built to protect a candidate’s privacy and trust. For example, the checks exclude private messaging and dating apps. Benefits include:

  • Removal of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can be discriminatory and it can unfairly influence decisions made in the workplace, including recruitment, promotion and performance management.

ACAS identifies unconscious bias as occurring when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values or life experiences – known as affinity bias. They also identify the halo effect, where a positive trait is transferred to a person without any evidence of it being true. For example, someone who dresses conservatively will be more capable in an office environment.

Using a trusted partner, like Experian, to manage your social media checks will provide you with a consistent approach to carrying out checks company-wide – balancing the risk of not checking, with the risk of breaching compliance, unfair bias, or losing out on new talent unnecessarily.

  • Boost your reputation as an employer

It’s clear that being seen to be tackling issues around diversity, inclusion and bias is both a key challenge and opportunity for businesses. Not doing enough to improve candidates’ perceptions could damage your brand reputation and disengage some of the brightest and best talent.

Over a third of students asked by Milkround said they consider how committed a company is to diversity and inclusion before applying for a job role, with 81% believing that companies aren’t doing enough to employ a truly diverse workforce. In contrast, 53% of companies believe their business is already diverse. That’s a big perception gap.

Carrying out subjective online searches in-house increases the risk of filtering out candidates based on personal bias, whether conscious or unconscious. Using an expert third party partner will help you reassure candidates that you’re committed to compliant, fair, transparent and consistent social media checks, as part of a robust, high quality recruitment process. With our social media checks, all candidates are assessed equally, using the same tools, processes and procedures.

  • What are you really looking for in a candidate?

One way to tackle the challenge of being unable to find the right candidate could be to follow the lead of many successful start-ups and identify intangible qualities like passion, enthusiasm, drive, accountability and the ability to learn quickly, alongside specific skills, experience and education.

2020 has shown how important qualities like adaptability, self-motivation and innovation are for employers, with many staff working from home or adapting to Covid-safe practices. Social media checks are a fast, simple and effective way to identify attributes that your candidate shares with your culture as a company.

Social media checks can also provide a way for employers to engage with potential new talent right from the start of the recruitment journey – by offering education and coaching around developing a professional digital persona, and guidance and support for applicants.

  • Are you prepared?

With so much changing in such a short space of time, from the omnipresence of social media in our lives, to changing workplaces and staff expectations, you need to be sure your employment practices are up to the challenge and ready for the opportunities. Seen in that light, social media checks aren’t just an issue for HR professionals, they should be on the radar of every business leader and board member.

Professional social media checks can help to give you the tools you need to keep pace and protect your organisation, brand, staff and customers; while attracting the best talent and boosting your reputation.

How do professional social media checks work?

They are powered by a behaviour analysis and reporting tool used to objectively evaluate an online profile. Experian use an individual’s basic data, provided to us by the employer, to identify their online footprint over a defined number of years. By combining specialised search techniques and search engine software, their tool can quickly and accurately identify a highly detailed footprint covering millions of web pages and hundreds of social and professional websites.

Experian then analyse the information they’ve found, including written and visual content, using a specialised online behaviour assessment tool to answer a wide range of key behaviour-related questions – objectively, fairly and consistently. The thousands of potential outcomes are then simplified into a number of key behaviour indicators – providing employers with a fair, balanced, score-based report including potential risks, opportunities and recommended actions.

There are different levels of checks for different roles and sectors, from light-touch to more in-depth checks. Experian social media checks can deliver results in around 3-4 days, so they’re a good way to support busy HR professionals, while saving the time and cost involved of carrying out online searches in-house.

Professional social media checks are designed, developed and optimised to provide a fair, objective and compliant check. That means they specifically exclude use of protected characteristics and other discriminatory factors including age, disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, relationship status and pregnancy.

Top tips for employers

Be consistent – set clear policies around social media checks and social media policies. Remember that it’s not just an HR issue, social media checks should be part of your risk management strategy.

Be compliant – make sure staff understand and follow all regulation, legislation and good practice guidelines around social media checks.

Be fair and objective – work with a third-party partner to carry out objective social media checks and tackle unconscious bias. Professional social media checks are designed to complement traditional pre-employment checks and can provide an alternative if they’re not available, for example, as an alternative to a criminal record check for global candidates.

Be innovative – social media checks offer a way to widen the scope and depth of your recruitment processes to identify intangible qualities that fit with your company culture and the unique requirements of individual roles. They can also be used throughout the employment journey, alongside promotion and performance management processes for instance.

Be prepared – as we live more of our lives in the digital world, being aware of people’s digital personas will become as important as their CV or references. Claiming you didn’t know about a person’s links to a racist organisation for example, is no longer acceptable if they’re openly demonstrating the fact on Facebook.

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