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Published: Oct 10, 2023 6 min read

A social media background check can allow you to learn more about a job applicant beyond the information provided by a traditional background check. This type of search has become essential for many employers, especially now that statistics show that millennials and Gen Zers use an average of six social media platforms each month.

Reviewing candidates’ social media profiles can help you make sure they are the right cultural fit for your company. However, since background checks on potential employees are strictly regulated by federal law, it’s important for employers to know how these searches should be conducted and what type of information they can use when making a hiring decision.

What is a social media background check?

A social media background check is the assessment of a job candidate’s profiles on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Social media background checks can provide insight into a candidate’s personality, behavior and interpersonal relationships. This information may help in deciding whether an applicant is the right fit by determining how they’re likely to behave with clients and fellow employees.

Legal considerations for employers conducting social media checks

Some employers may wonder whether they can do a quick manual social media check on a candidate before hiring. While looking at candidates’ public social media profiles isn’t prohibited by law, doing so — and using what you learn from their profiles to evaluate them — can be risky as it can lead to accusations of bias.

This means that, in most cases, the wisest course of action is to hire a background check company that complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to conduct the searches for you. These services can help you verify the applicant’s information, find criminal records, professional licenses, employment history and driving records. They can also conduct social media searches and flag any potential problems, including illicit activity, violent behavior or evidence of hate speech.

Can background checks see private social media accounts?

The short answer is no. Additionally, some states have specific policies that prohibit an employer from requesting an applicant give them access to their private social media profiles or request that they change their privacy settings.

However, even with a hidden profile, background searches might still find a few details about a candidate, including screenshots of posts, mentions, tags and pictures on other people’s profiles. However, information obtained in this manner is likely to be insufficient and unreliable.

How far back can a social media background check go?

Most basic background checks go back up to seven years, though some searches — like those for bankruptcy records — can reach up to 10 years. This period may also change depending on individual state employment laws. However, because publicly available social media information can go back indefinitely (unless an employee deletes it) these types of checks can theoretically go back as far as the applicant has been posting online.

What shows up on a social media background check?

Social media background check tools have different features, but there are a handful of common details you can expect to show up after a screening. Third-party tools review tend to categorize their findings in a report that includes information like:

Employment history

Social media platforms such as LinkedIn can be useful in verifying an applicant’s work experience and past employers.

Mentions from other social media users

Comments and replies from other social media users can offer insights into how an applicant interacts with people. Several negative remarks can indicate the person may be difficult to deal with, which could impact both client and employee relationships if they’re in an outward-facing role.

Affiliations with suspicious organizations or hate groups

Social media posts can also reveal a candidate’s affiliation with online groups that spread hateful messages targeted at certain people. This may be a concern for companies that could risk their brand reputation by hiring employees with affiliations that don’t align with their values.

Endorsement of and participation in illegal activities

Unlawful behavior such as violence and the use of illegal drugs could also show up during social media background screenings.

Confidential information

Social media background checks can analyze posts, comments and replies to highlight sensitive information. You may be able to also get a feel for whether an applicant understands the importance of not sharing confidential company information on social platforms depending on what details they disclose.

Summary of Money’s What is a Social Media Background Check

Social media background checks review potential candidates’ public social media accounts to learn more about them and spot any red flags. These searches can help employers mitigate security risks and find the right culture fit for your team.

A social media background screening can reveal information that other pre-employment checks might not, provide additional insights into a candidate’s character and offer a glimpse into their interests. However, these checks can also uncover unreliable information and may involve privacy and ethical challenges.

Employers running these checks on their own — and using the information to make hiring decisions — could face accusations of bias. Additionally, because background checks on potential employees are regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it’s best to hire third-party consumer reporting agencies to conduct social media searches. These services are better equipped to assess multiple accounts and conduct legally compliant background checks.