Reference Checks and Social Networking Sites

The internet provides a wealth of information.  One can use Google to look up almost anything, including information about people’s private lives.  Many employers have capitalised on this opportunity by using the information they find on social networking sites (SNS) to make recruitment decisions.  However, a recent article in the Journal of Business Ethics has cast doubt over this practice.

An increasing number of employers have recentlly begun using SNS, such as Facebook, to provide background checks to job applicants.  These sites allow users to create a personal webpage that displays information about the user for other people to see.  Facebook, for example, reportedly has over 500 million active users making it a very rich source of personal information for employers.  Apart from the convenience, another benefit of these sites is that they are completely free.

There are however, also a number of arguments against using SNS for background checks.  From an empirical perspective, there is limited or no evidence to support the validity of SNS screening. It may seem defensible to rule a candidate out of contention on the basis of a dubious comment or photo on Facebook. However, I can’t emphasise clearly enough that I know of no valid peer reviewed research available that would help to justify such an approach. If anything, the vast majority of scientific research available explores and confirms the validity of more traditional selection methods such as testing for general mental ability, structured interviews, personality profiling and reference checking.

Aside from the absence of empirical support for the approach, Clark and Roberts (2010) raised two other ethical considerations which are summarised below.


There is no general consensus on the definition of privacy but most would agree that it entails a natural right to keep some personal information from being known to others. Prior to sharing or utilising personal information , it is the norm within Australia for a company to obtained what is termed “informed consent”. This means that a person consents not only to provide personal information, but that they do so whilst being completely aware of the way that this information is likely to be used.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Most large companies now take their social responsibilities very seriously indeed. As good corporate citizens, Clarke and Roberts argue that all employers have a responsibility to also consider the impact of their actions on the SNS medium in general. SNS are increasingly becoming a critical part of the way that individual’s relate with and to their local community and if employers misuse such sites they have the potential to cause irrepairable harm to this medium in general:

“Blanket acceptance of this practice destroys the utility and positive impact of this new communication medium”

Source:Clark & Roberts, 2010

Clark and Roberts therefore argue that there is a real risk that, misuse of SNS by employers could lead to people not being able to communicate honestly with each other via this medium.

Implication for HR practice

If your company is still intent on utilising SNS screening in its recruitment processes, you should think very carefully about the policies and processes you put in place to ensure that the approach is not abused. As a starting point, company guidelines should incorporate the following considerations:

  • Consistency with gove

    ment privacy guidelines (visit the following website for access to Australian guidelines:

  • Incorporation of informed consent
  • Provision of a reasonable notice period to the employee prior to the background check being conducted
  • Ensure that out-dated information is not used
  • Take steps to minimise intrusion into unnecessary personal information
  • With a process like this it is especially important that you seek independant legal advice about whether what you are proposing is fair and lawful.

At HC, we pride ourselves on being science-based practitioners. That means that, wherever possible, we only recommend strategies that have been tried and tested in controlled empirical studies. In the absence of sound empirical support for the use of SNS sites, and given the range of reliable and valid selection methods already at our disposal (e.g. structured interviews, psychometric testing), HC would advise against the use of this kind of HR practice.

For further information on this article and how to perform fairer background checks using SNS, please refer to:

Clark, L. A., & Roberts, S. J. (2010). Employer’s use of social networking sites: A socially irresponsible practice. Journal of Business Ethics, 95, 507-525.

Does your company need assistance in the selection and recruitment of talented workers?  HC can provide your company the appropriate tools to objectively assess and reliably select the ideal candidate for a given role.  Contact us for more information.

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