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Going out on the proverbial legal ledge: using social media for applicant screening

behavioral research / conferences / social media research / blog

The growth and acceptance of social media sites across generations has been well-documented. Given the popularity of Facebook and Twitter and the unfiltered type and amount of information that individuals post about themselves, it is not surprising that some businesses view social media as a quick and inexpensive way to learn additional information about and potentially screen applicants (1).

While businesses are hoping to get an unfiltered picture of their applicants, they might also be getting information unrelated to the job that could lead to illegal employment decisions. That is, U.S. Federal law prohibits businesses from making employment decisions that discriminate against individuals of certain protected classes: race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information (2). Businesses making employment decisions that are not job or business relevant and disproportionately impact individuals who are members of a protected class are in violation of Federal law. Even if the discrimination is unintentional, companies engaging in employment discrimination can be investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and held accountable for discriminatory employment decisions.

Before a company chooses to use social media to evaluate a job applicant, their human resource team must first answer two important questions:

  1. Is the information collected about an applicant on social media relevant to the job?
  2. Is the social media access and usage related to an individuals protected class status?

To date, little research has shown information collected on social media to be job-related (3). Previous work has, however, shown that access to social media varies by protected class status (4). Thus, there are a number of potential illegal discrimination issues in using social media information for hiring decisions (5). Previous work has primarily focused on the issue of access to the internet and social media. It has not examined the extent to which social media usage patterns are related to protected class status.

To help provide insight into the issue of differential social media usage, I’ve been conducting a series of studies to examine if what behaviors on Facebook and Twitter differ by age, gender, and race-ethnicity. Results from a recent study of 669 adults who use social media revealed that there are differences in how and why men and women, race/ethnic minorities, and individuals over the age of 40 use Facebook and Twitter. To see some of the findings, see the charts below.

More specifically, results of this study indicated that:

  • Men are more likely to use Twitter to keep up with news and commercial products and look for employment opportunities
  • Females are more likely to use Facebook to keep others up-to-date on their lives
  • Minority participants more frequently update their Facebook status, post more selfies on Facebook and Twitter, and are more likely to use Facebook to look for employment opportunities and keep up with commercial products
  • Adults under the age of 40 updated their Facebook status more frequently, post more posted Twit-pics, and post more selfies on Facebook and Twitter
  • Facebook users under the age of 40 believe it is more important that their profiles are impressive and make others think they are smart and have a lot of friends

Results of the current study indicate that members of different protected classes are doing different things on Facebook and Twitter. These results together with the evidence showing that social media access also differs by protected class status should serve as a warning sign to businesses and human resource professionals considering using social media to evaluate applicants. Specifically, applicant information gathered on social media has not been shown to be job related and the difference social media usage patterns makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make consistent comparisons among job applicants. A recent review of federal and state employment litigation found the most legally dangerous selection devices and employment practices were those in which were unrelated to the job or were an inconsistently selection processes was used (6). Given that the average payout for employers who settle or lose employment discrimination cases is $1.5 million (6), using social media to evaluate and screen job applicants appears to be a risky business practice.

In sum, until better evidence is available to indicate that social media is a good predictor of job performance and does not cause illegal employment discrimination,businesses should proceed with caution. The allure of using social media as a quick and inexpensive way to learn additional information about job applicants could potentially lead businesses into an expensive legal battle.

The results of our study are featured on Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology’s (SIOP) website. In addition, I will be taking part in two symposiums regarding the use of social media for recruiting and selection at the SIOP annual conference on May 16 in Honolulu Hawaii.


  1. Davison, H., Maraist, C. C., Hamilton, R. H., & Bing, M. N. (2012). To screen or not to screen? Using the internet for selection decisions. Employee Responsibilities And Rights Journal, 24(1), 1-21. doi:10.1007/s10672-011-9178-y; Slovensky, R. & Ross, W. H. (2012). Should human resource managers use social media to screen job applicants? Managerial and legal issues in the USA. Info, 14, 55-69.
  2. http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/index.cfm
  3. Kluemper, D. H. (2013). Social network screening: Pitfalls, possibilities, and parallels in employment selection. Advanced Series in Management. Tanya Bondarouk and Miguel Olivas-Lujan (Eds.). Bingly, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd
  4. Fox, S., & Livingston, G. (2007). Latinos online. Retrieved June 10, 2011 from http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=73.; Zickuhr, K., & Smith, A., (2012). Digital differences. Retrieved August 10, 2013 from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Digital-differences.aspx
  5. Karl, K., Peluchette, J., Schlaegel, C. (2010). Who’s posting Facebook Faux Pas? A cross-cultural examination of personality differences. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 18, 174-186.; Smith, W. P. & Kidder, D. L. (2010). You’ve been tagged! (Then again, maybe not): Employers and Facebook. Business Horizons, 53, 491-499.cfm
  6. William, K. Z., Schaffer, M.M., & Ellis, L.E. (2013). Legal Risk in Selection: An Analysis of Processes and Tools. Journal of Business and Psychology, 28(4), 401-410. doi 10.1007/s10869-013-9299-4
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