Social Media Background Checks: Where to Draw the Ethical Line

July 10th, 2014 by Dodie

For decades, the professional norm has been to accept a resumé sent in by a potential employee and/or accept it after a background check or an interview process where an employee’s conduct and qualifications are assessed. Tenant screening follows a somewhat similar process. But what about investigating social networking sites for traces of irresponsible behaviors? That may seem to be going too far, but reality is, it is done nowadays.

For employers or landlords like you, social media background check is an easily accessible, low-cost addition to the screening process for potential employees and tenants. Social media pages are networking environments where people give out more information about their personal lives and indirectly show how they think.

Carnegie Mellon University reported in the Wall Street Journal that about 10% and a third of US firms are using social media networks to snoop for job applicants’ information early in the hiring process. A JobVite survey suggests that 92% of US companies are using social media networks to look up potential employees.

Legal and Ethical Protections

It is reasonable to think that employers who use social networking sites for information about a potential employee is done with full disclosure. Authors Renee L. Warning and F. Robert Buchanan share this position in the scholarly article Social Networking Web Sites: The Legal and Ethical Aspects of Pre-Employment Screening and Employee Surveillance (Journal of Human Resources Education, 2010).

There is a federal statute that prohibits employers to request login information from their employees. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act makes violation of a website’s terms of service a federal crime. You cannot reject an application due to information from social media regarding one’s political persuasions, sexual orientation or religion. Again, while much is discussed about the issue in terms of employment screening, the same is true when it comes to screening tenants.

The law protects users of social media websites. There are state laws that also protect them from having to provide you access to their password-protected digital content or account details.

The online recruiting community emphasizes that only public information should be used in social media background checks. It is unethical for you to snoop on material that has been intentionally established as private and only for the consumption of people within the individual’s network. If the owner of such information did not submit it to the public sphere, it should not be scrutinized by you.


Information in the public domain is available for your consideration. Social media background checks can be used in an ethical way as long as the focus is on information that is relevant to whether this person could be the right one you need.

Responsibility is a two-way traffic, too. Inasmuch as photos and informal blog posts are not entirely helpful in determining someone’s character, skills set, ethics, or overall abilities, any applicant should also be aware that his character can still be assessed by you through the information he puts out there. It would be fair game if it’s information you found in the public domain. He must expect to be held responsible for his online presence – what his profile may reflect could be interpreted as the type of person and decision-maker he is.

Efficiency could be contingent upon you learning more about a prospective employee or tenant. Digital footprints are vast and comprise a really interesting record of life in our time. The display of “unprofessional” or “disturbing” content in public media spaces may definitely be considered a red flag. A growing number of employers and landlords factor in photos, profiles and online commentary to decide on who gets accepted and who gets rejected.

The Internet is global and public, after all; it would be naïve to think of it in other ways.

Comments are closed.