Introducing the safe social media background check

"The number of sexually explicit photos and videos [that people post of themselves online] is staggering," says Max Drucker, CEO of Social Intelligence, citing the shocking things his company has uncovered. Social Intelligence conducts social media background checks for employers that either want to monitor their employees' online activities or screen job seekers' Web-based pursuits.

The privately-held Santa Barbara-based startup seeks to help employers out of the Catch-22 presented as more hiring managers snoop into prospective employees' social networks: On one hand, says Drucker, if employers check out job seekers' social networking profiles, they risk being exposed to information that's illegal for them to include in hiring decisions and that might constitute employment discrimination. On the other hand, if they seek to avoid any legal risk by turning a blind eye to the information people post online, they risk making negligent hires. That is, hiring someone who engages in questionable--if not criminal--activity that could put the company's reputation at risk.

Social Intelligence is one of a handful of companies offering social media background checks. InfoCheckUSA and Tandem Select are two other background checking companies that offer their own social media services.

By having Social Intelligence administer the background check, employers don't have to do the dirty work themselves, and thus are spared exposure to information that they can't legally include in hiring decisions.

"We explain to customers that they will not see anything that's federally or state protected: race, religion, national origin, age, marital status, disability status, military status, etc.," says Drucker. "We redact all that information. So the applicant is protected against being evaluated based on information that's not legally allowable--or frankly relevant for that job--and the employer is protected from allegations of discrimination because that employer was never exposed to anything they could illegally discriminate against."

Meanwhile, Social Intelligence remains off the legal hook because, says Drucker, it's not making a hiring decision based on the information it finds. "We are a consumer reporting agency," he says. "We just present the information. Nothing we do is subjective. We simply go out and do what they [customers] ask us to do. We find what they ask us to find."

And boy does Social Intelligence find a mother load. In addition to sexually explicit and provocative photos, videos and text, Drucker has seen racist activity, violent activity, and pictures of people brandishing assault weapons, handguns, even samurai swords. "We see people looking to acquire Oxycontin," he adds. "We see pictures of people using drugs."

Racial slurs, photos of people with weapons or in sexually compromising positions are fair game for employers to consider, Drucker says, because they indicate an individual's judgment and employers are allowed to make hiring decisions based on a job seeker's perceived professional judgment.

How Social Intelligence Conducts Its Background Checks

Social Intelligence's background check product is based on a software application that collects data from across the Web on an individual's social activity. Employers select from a list of 25 types of Internet activity that they want Social Intelligence to search for, including racist activity, violent activity, sexually provocative activity and illegal activity. Employers can also have social intelligence search for positive activity, such as whether the candidate does volunteer work, has been published, received awards or honors, or actively promotes himself in a professional way online.

Social Intelligence says most clients want the company to report everything that is legally allowable, so they select all filters. The top activities employers are interested in are illegal activity, potentially violent activity and racist or discriminatory activity.

After employers have selected the criteria they want Social Intelligence to search, the company's software scours social media sites, e-commerce sites, blogs, the Twittersphere, chat rooms, online forums, and photo and video-sharing sites. The software only has access to information in the public domain. So if a job seeker has personal information on a Facebook profile, but that profile is locked down through Facebook's privacy settings, Social Intelligence will not be able to access it. Drucker notes that the company doesn't employ hacking or "fake friending" techniques to access individuals' private social networks.

Because Social Intelligence searches so many different Websites, Drucker believes the quality of his company's search results will be "far greater" than what an employer could do [on its own], looking at just the early results of a Google search.

Finally, a team of analysts review all the links that Social Intelligence's technology gathers to give some context to that data. For example, if a Social Intelligence background check turns up an image of a job seeker with some kind of marijuana imagery, the analyst might discover a caption under the photo that reads, "Vote NO on CA Prop 19 to legalize marijuana," which would indicate that the candidate is opposed to the legalization of pot. If the caption read, "Awesome weed last night! I was so high!" the photo would tell a different story about the job seeker. Only a human is able to discern the difference.

How Employers Act on Social Intelligence's Findings

If an employer decides not to hire a candidate based on something Social Intelligence discovered in a background check, such as racist comments the candidate left on a blog, the employer is obligated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to notify the employee that it intends to take "adverse action" (e.g., deny employment to the candidate) based on the findings in the background check. The employer is also obligated under the FCRA to send a copy of the background check results to the job seeker along with a document that explains how the job seeker can dispute the report. Employers may opt to have Social Intelligence send these notifications to the job seeker.

The dispute resolution process gives job seekers "their day in court," says Drucker. It gives them the chance to dispute the accuracy of the information or to otherwise explain the nature or circumstances surrounding the information.

Drucker adds that job seekers only get to see these reports when an employer decides to make a hiring decision based on the information in the report. Another important point: Social Intelligence only sends reports to employers when the company's investigation turns up information that the employer wanted to know about. So if a screen turned up sexually provocative photos and nothing else, but the employer didn't indicate that it wanted to know about a candidate's fetishes, a report would not be generated.

Drucker likes to believe his company shields job seekers' and employers from harm. "The charter of the company is about protecting that job applicant's privacy and protecting that employer from allegations of discrimination and from making negligent hires," he says.

While Social Intelligence helps employers reduce their legal risk when it comes to checking into prospective employees' social networking activity, it doesn't protect the job seeker's privacy. The opinions they express and images they chose to post on the open Web were never private, therefore, their dirty laundry remains subject to Social Intelligence and its customers' prying eyes.

Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at mlevinson@cio.com

This story, "Introducing the safe social media background check" was originally published by CIO.

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