Reference checks and social media: On shaky ground?

With all the social media sites available today, it is still critical to verbally validate a potential employee’s past experience with a previous employer.

There’s no denying, however, that a lot can be deduced about someone from a bit of quick searching in the public domain. Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs can show the entire history of someone’s online ‘existence’.

The question is, how much of the information gleaned from social sites should you base your decisions on? How do you strike a balance?

Phoning previous employers can often be unproductive, as many prefer to give a positive response rather than offer criticism over the phone. This is called the ‘halo effect’. It also takes hours of time to request the call, find a time that suits, then actually connect with the right person.

So, where verbal confirmation can’t be relied upon, many employers are now turning to the internet. Social networking sites can ‘red flag’ undesirable characteristics such as violent tendencies, bad-mouthing previous employers, sexist or racist attitudes or excessive use of social media on company time.

Recent survey results show just how important social media has become for recruiters and hiring managers. More than 80% of hiring managers plan to recruit through social networks in 2011. Social media reference checking is also becoming much more common: Close to 30% of hiring managers plan to check candidate’s backgrounds on either LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, in addition to a general Google search.

But there’s also a downside to these kinds of ‘character checks’:

  • You are likely to uncover details that would be discriminatory if used in your decision-making process (i.e. age, sex, race, religion, sexual preference etc)
  • You could open yourself up to a law suit if the candidate became aware that you had based your decision on such information
  • The information is not reliable because you don’t always know the source or context and the candidate is not able to refute it
  • Those candidates who don’t use social media have an unfair advantage, simply through absence of information.

Perhaps a better balance when reference checking would be to hire a third party who would:

  • Take the time and ask the right questions to get more accurate responses when phoning previous employers and references
  • Ensure that some kind of filtering process was applied to information found on social media sites
  • Insulate you against legal ramifications and from seeing potentially discriminatory data.

Whether we like it or not, character checking through social media is here to stay, so we need to find a better balance between that and traditional methods of information gathering.

Perhaps if we rely less on data which is one step removed from the candidate and improve our data gathering from the candidates themselves (i.e. interviewing them first, obtaining a work sample etc), then we would be more likely to make better hiring decisions, while reducing the risk of legal challenge.

About Michael Overell

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. Previously with McKinsey. Passionate about startups, health and technology. Surf when I can; ride a bike most days. Follow me @mboverell.