Social Media Background Checks: The Legal Landscape

Social media background checks
Photo Credits: Alexander Shatov via Unsplash

With the rise in digital communications, people of the world are not just using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even TikTok to just communicate and share opinions. These platforms have become powerful tools for screening people who apply for jobs. HR managers, recruiters and even company heads are using social media to determine whether a candidate is suitable for the position.

This begs us to ask the question – how legitimate are these social media background checks? And in an age where everything ends up online, how much can be absorbed by decision-makers to determine a potential hire’s suitability?

Everything on the Internet is Forever

The most common occurrence in any social setting is taking photos and videos of a night out and posting them on the internet. Whether it is a video on Facebook that never gets taken down or a story on Instagram that disappears in 24 hours, everything stays on the internet. This can be a sure way for recruiters to check how candidates behave outside of the office, which can reflect on the company should they be hired.

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The higher the position, the more companies worry about their image in the industry. When hired for such positions, candidates tend to represent the company no matter where they are. This kind of screening is ideal when checking whether the candidate is openly aggressive, sexist, abusive or racist as it can reflect badly on the company.

It helps to go through social media, as there is a lot that is left out of a candidate’s CV, and checking their online presence can give better insight into the reality of the candidate. And while the concerns of the company can be seen as valid, many believe checking social media can infringe on their privacy.

Lack of Transparency, Legality and Scope

With privacy being the biggest concern, candidates may not even know their social media is being checked. Beyond LinkedIn, if recruiters look at social media platforms that are less professional and open to the public like Twitter, candidates may feel like they can be discriminated against by their competitors who do not have open social media profiles.

The legality of social media background checks on potential hires by recruiters and interviewers in the UK is also a complex issue. The UK has strict data protection laws that apply to the collection and use of personal data, including data collected from social media.

The Data Protection Act 1998 states that a person’s personal information should be processed lawfully, obtained for lawful purposes and is adequate (and not excessive). Keeping this in mind, while checking a candidate’s social media is lawful, recruiters must be careful as to what they are checking for.

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The Act states that should a recruiter come across information such as age, race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, using that information in the hiring process is illegal in the UK. If a candidate can prove that they were discriminated against based on information found on social media, the employer could face legal action.

Beyond Social Media Checks – Using Proper Tools During Hiring

To mitigate these risks, recruiters and interviewers should have clear policies and procedures in place for social media background checks. These policies should outline what information can and cannot be used in the hiring process, and how this information should be used. Recruiters and interviewers should also ensure that candidates are aware that their social media profiles may be reviewed as part of the hiring process.

It is also important for recruiters and interviewers to be aware of the limitations of social media background checks. Social media profiles can provide valuable insights into a candidate’s personality and interests, but they do not provide a complete picture of a candidate’s suitability for a role. Recruiters and interviewers should use social media background checks as one tool in a comprehensive hiring process that includes interviews, reference checks, and other assessments.


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