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Could You Get Burned for Researching Job Applicants Online?

We rely on the Internet for a whole host of things—downloading information and entertainment, shopping for—or marketing—goods and services, and finding out what others are doing or saying on social sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and so on.

So what’s to keep you from using the Internet to screen candidates before you hire your next hygienist or office manager?

After all, online applications are now the norm. Computer programs weed through them by identifying the candidates who best match a set of job-specific keywords. And after that, many employers conduct social media searches to inform their hiring decisions.

In fact, according to a survey last year by CareerBuilder, more and more employers are turning to the Internet—especially social networking sites—to gather information about prospective employees. And 51 percent of those who do so reported finding information that caused them not to hire a job candidate. That’s up from 43 percent in 2013 and 34 percent in 2012.

But is this a good idea, or something that can get you and your practice into hot water? As you’ll see, the answer depends on what sort of information you uncover and how you intend to use it.

To Search or Not to Search?

According to the CareerBuilder survey, employers mainly eliminated candidates from consideration based on social media findings such as these: Posting provocative or inappropriate photographs, revealing information about drinking or drug use, bad-mouthing a fellow employee or their company, lying about their qualifications, exhibiting poor communication skills, and writing negative comments about others’ race, gender, religion, etc.

On the flip side, about one-third of the employers surveyed said information discovered through online searches made them more likely to hire some job candidates. What positives impressed them? Social media content suggesting that a candidate’s personality was a good fit for their company; information supporting the candidate’s qualifications, conveying a professional image or solid communication skills; testimonials from others; and lists of honors and awards.

As an employer, you’d be able to find information online about most job applicants, except the few who’ve avoided participating in social networks. But what significance does this actually have for you as an employer looking to fill a position in your practice?

Should You Search Because Others Do?

On one hand, mining the Internet for information on a potential new hire could spare you loads of aggravation and expense down the road. On the other, you might find yourself in legal trouble if, as a result of snooping into a candidate’s social media activity, a case could be made that you based a hiring decision on an applicant’s protected characteristics. 

For example, let’s say that by looking at one applicant’s Facebook page, you learn that she just announced her pregnancy to her friends. Even though she’s an excellent candidate, you’re tempted to rule her out because you’re concerned about the scheduling headaches that will arise when she eventually goes on maternity leave.

Or, imagine that you discover a job candidate has espoused extreme political or religious views on Twitter that you find repulsive, and now you’re inclined to nix him from your list of receptionist candidates because he seems to have a people problem.

In our experience as investigators who help clients with background checks and pre-employment screenings, the Internet has in some ways made our work easier, but in other ways it’s now even more challenging. It’s a landscape fraught with legal risks, depending on both federal and state regulations.

Following are some do’s and don’ts to help you steer clear of trouble if you decide to add Internet investigation of job candidates as part of your hiring process.

Do Know What’s Protected

You already know that you may not discriminate against potential employees based on their age, race, religion, national origin, sex, ethnicity, or disability if they’re otherwise qualified for a job. In other words, you can’t rule out Jane Doe just because you find out she’s 60, yet otherwise just as qualified as the younger Janet Jones.

You should know, too, there is proposed federal legislation—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act—that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. At the moment, less than half the states have laws on the books making sexual orientation a protected characteristic and even fewer make gender identity a protected characteristic. So, know what’s legal in your state.

Do Separate Researcher from Decision-Maker

We recommend separating the person who conducts a search of a job candidate’s social media sites from whoever makes the final hiring decision. Why? The person who does the research can ensure—and document—that the same procedure was used to check each candidate’s site, while at the same time screening out EEOC-protected characteristics, and then turn in a final report to you as the decision-maker.

Say your designated person checks the social media sites of two finalists for the same position and finds that one posted questionable pictures on Facebook and boasted about how he or she regularly gets wasted on weekends. That’s information you may want to weigh in deciding between the two candidates. And thorough documentation helps protect you if the losing candidate later claims discrimination in your hiring process.

As long as you’re conducting the same type of background check on every applicant, and the negative information discovered does not fall within the protected characteristics, then it’s perfectly okay to tell that applicant that you’ve chosen someone else who is better qualified.

Don’t Assume Your Findings are Factual

We know from experience that something we find on the Internet about a person we investigate is not necessarily true. So, it’s wise to “trust but verify.”

Similarly, we’re always a bit amazed when dental practices and other small businesses base hiring decisions for key personnel on a simple recommendation from a friend or colleague, without the due diligence of a pre-employment screening or background check. 

Even combining an Internet search with a friend’s glowing reference can be tricky when employers try to check out applicants on their own. One potential pitfall is the risk of mixing up a job candidate with someone who has the same name, and then acting on the information found. We actually had one such applicant call us and say, “They told me I have a criminal record, but that’s not me. Can you run a background check and prove that?”

Likewise, you may find your job candidate has no criminal record in Michigan and that is enough to satisfy you. But what if you find out later that he was once convicted on drug charges while living in Maine? It can be problematic if you hire someone of dubious character because your background research wasn’t thorough.

Do Tell Candidates You Check Social Media

If you’re intent on checking your job applicants’ social media sites, do establish criteria for what you’ll research about them online, let them know that’s part of your hiring process, and be consistent in the research on each candidate. Then, be sure to document any findings of note that don’t fall into a protected characteristic category outlined by the EEOC.

Don’t Circumvent Social Media Privacy Settings

There’s been a national backlash against employers asking employees—or prospective employees--for their Facebook user names and passwords. About a dozen states have even enacted legislation that forbids them from doing so (Michigan is not yet one of them), though there’s no federal law that applies. Either way, it’s an improper and intrusive request.

There are technical ways around privacy settings on social media sites, too. But you’re flirting with trouble if you find your way in and reject a prospective employee because of something you found on his or her site.

Generally speaking, you can view anything that’s publicly available on the Internet about a potential employee.  We advise starting with LinkedIn.

Most job applicants expect a prospective employer to check his or her LinkedIn site, since it’s the online social network for business professionals who use it for networking and job prospecting. Savvy users post detailed profiles that include an up-to-date photo, summary of skills, current and past employment, licensure in their field, professional organizations they belong to, volunteer activities, and in many cases short testimonials from present and past colleagues.

Again, though, take it all with a grain of salt. People have been known to fudge their resumes. It’s typically a red flag when someone says he or she “attended” college rather than “graduated” from one. The former most often means he or she didn’t obtain a college degree.


In short, follow these simple guidelines to ensure that you avoid legal landmines and make the best decision possible for filling a position within your practice.

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