Whether you're trying to hire your first employee for a new venture or already have thousands of people on your payroll, screening applicants is a must. Doing so reduces the odds of future safety issues and confirms education or skills. But in today's modern technological age, making social media review a new standard within screening protocols could improve results dramatically.

Most companies are missing out

In its recently released 2017 Background Screening Trends & Best Practices Report, Sterling Talent Solutions revealed that most companies view screening as imperative, with 89 percent of companies conducting employment background checks. But many companies still aren't on board with integrating social media reviews into hiring, with about only a third (34 percent) of businesses reporting they perform social media checks on prospective employees. To give some perspective on the scope of the data pool this leaves untapped, here's how many people are on some of the most popular social media platforms worldwide:

Facebook: 2 billion (roughly 1 out of every 4 people given the global population of 7.4 billion)

Twitter: 328 million

Instagram: 700 million

LinkedIn: 500 million

A legitimate route to the bigger candidate picture

Clare Hart, Sterling's CEO, asserts that integrating social media review into screening processes offers a more holistic, broader view of candidates. For example, hiring managers might look for photos, videos or other content that references violence, drugs, unlawful activity or intolerance for specific groups. But the review might also provide a broader view such as whether a candidate is more introverted or extroverted, in addition to positive insights (such as charitable work, professional recommendations or media/blog articles) and negative insights (such as inappropriate photos or language). Having this larger sense about who the candidate is can help hiring managers decide whether the candidate would fit well into the available job and company as a whole. If the managers can get the right fit more of the time, the candidates the company eventually hires likely will be happier and more productive, staying longer in the job and stabilizing the business.

The role of artificial intelligence

Implementing social media review into your larger screening protocol doesn't have to rob you of significant time or money--it by no means has to be a manual process. A single artificial intelligence program, for example, could scan profiles for specific types of images, keywords or links. Companies like RiskAware and Fama Technologies already are incorporating these services into their broader offerings.

Compliance isn't optional

Despite the fact that social media can be a benefit during hiring, Hart also cautions that compliance with regulations isn't something to take lightly. She recommends that employers take steps to ensure they're adhering with local, state and federal laws, which can change rapidly.

"With the explosion of social media engagement," Hart says, "candidates often share information online that cannot be used to make a hiring decision [in the United States], such as age, gender or religion. Our [survey] found that 95% of social media/web searches are being conducted internally, which could potentially expose companies to compliance risk."

Partnering with a screening service can help companies stay on top of current regulations and requirements related to social media use and privacy, with such arrangements making good sense for companies with high hiring needs. Formal internal training based on wider best practices might be another important avenue for risk reduction and might be more practical and affordable for companies that have fewer positions to fill, but even smaller businesses might want to consider screening services to avoid the impression or accusation of bias.

Verified, but maybe not real after all

In addition to compliance, as you consider the pros and cons of social media screening, consider the problem of false personas. The picture people paint on social media doesn't always represent who they really are. This isn't necessarily for conscious ill intent, but individuals often post what they want to be or what they believe others want to see. This is known as the Social Media Effect. Subsequently, even the most sophisticated AI screening tools have to be used with a grain of salt. Other tools, such as the AI-based program companies like Unilever are using to automate traditional screening steps, can help verify personas when used in conjunction with social media options.

Social media might be evolving, but it's not going away. With so many people online, it might be just a matter of time before screening social profiles becomes standard practice. The sooner you come up with a social media screening plan that works for you, the further ahead of the pack you'll be.

Published on: Aug 15, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.