Full transcript: Interview with social media screening experts
According to the Pew Research Center, around seven out of ten Americans use social media. From Instagram to TikTok to LinkedIn, so much content is posted daily. As a result of the widespread usage of social media, more employers are factoring in social media content as part of the hiring process. A candidate or employee may have a broad and diverse web presence, which can make the lives of HR professionals and hiring managers that much busier.
A search of web content allows companies to see prospective candidates through a new lens, highlighting individuals who might be an ideal fit with their values and those who might not align - or even pose a risk. By surfacing potentially concerning content found online, social media screening has become a vital component of the hiring process for many organizations.
Clare Horvik, Vice President of Marketing for Verified Credentials, invited Ben Mones, CEO of Fama Technologies, for an interview to discuss a hot topic – social media screening.
Ben Mones is the founder and CEO of Fama Technologies, the technology firm founded in 2015 to provide AI-powered, FCRA-compliant candidate screening solutions using social media information. Verified Credentials partners with Fama to empower employers to utilize social media screening in their background screening strategies.
Clare Horvik, VP of Marketing
Ben Mones, CEO & Founder
Horvik: Ben, thank you so much for talking with me. You're on the front lines of social media screening. There's so much for people to learn about what it is, how it's leveraged, and how it is used for candidate selection. As a true expert and pioneer in social media screening, how would you start from a high level and describe what social media screening is?
Mones: Well, first, it's great to be here, and I'm looking forward to sharing a productive conversation about this. I like to start by breaking down what social media is not. This is not a score.
This is not a thumbs up or a thumbs down. It's not a yes or a no or a recommendation on a candidate based on what they tweeted, what they posted, how many restaurant check-ins they have, or pictures of their dog. That's not what this is.
Instead, think of social media screening as a way for employers to get insights from publicly available information on the web about the candidates coming into their organizations. It's much more of a question: "Is this person posting things that might be intolerant, threatening, or harassing?"
Horvik: I like that you touched on publicly available information. I think that matters to many people. Not every thumbs-up and thumbs-down are tracked and monitored when you're screening, and employers don't necessarily care about that. It isn't pouring through everything they've ever done and getting an intense report on them. I think that's a misconception that can be out there for candidates.
Mones: Think of this as a way to align your new hire with the values of your culture and your employees. Will this candidate embody the kind of character that will contribute to a safe and
Imagine that they're evangelizing your brand with your customers day in and day out and talking with or meeting your
clients. You want to know that they will continue to uphold those brand values. Think of social media screening as a more compliant way to glean insights from publicly available web content.
Horvik: Let's talk about employers' attitudes toward social media screening. Have you seen a change in their approach to it in the past year or the past five years? Are you getting a sense that there's a little bit more acceptance and adoption of social media screening?
Mones: Absolutely. We started Fama a little less than eight years ago. I remember when people would say, yeah, social media, my kids are on social media. But what does that have to do with hiring?
Most people are considering that sort of thing. Let's look at some of the data over time. When we began, about 44% of employers were doing some form of social media screening,
"Googling" candidates, if you will. But now, the last data that came out has about 80% of employers doing some form of "Googling" or social media checks as part of the candidate fulfillment or candidate vetting process.
Horvik: When you say that many employers are searching online for candidates, do you have any insight about them doing that in-house?
Mones: Of course. Say, for instance, that I'm an employer, and I go on a candidate's public Facebook page, and I see a pregnancy announcement, or maybe I see that they have a
disability. In cases like this, with protected class information, I may see things about a candidate that I shouldn't see. I shouldn't consider any of these things as a part of the pre-employment screening process. It wasn't until the rise of third parties like Fama, working together with Verified Credentials, that companies began to be able to limit the aperture of what would even be reported as part of a social media check. They work to find John Doe in a sea of John Does by going to a third party. We help by blinding the employer, and in some ways protecting them.
By using a third party, the only things they could potentially adjudicate are those that they select as being relevant to the job they're filling or the company that this person is joining. See if it aligns with the things you already care about and the characteristics you consider to be a good hire for the job in question.
Horvik: Ben, explain for our readers the kinds of things employers can see in a search.
Mones: Consider that in the old days, you'd have to do it yourself. You'd have to go to a person's Twitter account, press Control-F and search for a swear word. But, if I'm using Verified Credentials, I can say, okay, these are things that I care about. I want to consider intolerance and threats, maybe illegal drugs. The power of technology, the power of an integrated third-party vendor relationship, like Fama and Verified Credentials, has enabled a customer to see a comprehensive report where they can choose to only see the sorts of things that are relevant to the hiring decision they're making. That kind of evolution in technology drastically changed the market.
Horvik: Do you think that social media screening helps ease existing employees' minds about who's joining their team?
Mones: I think that's the pace of change we're seeing. Employees have more choices in where they work than ever before. The number one reason that people change jobs is to make more compensation. But the number two reason is that they want to work with a culture of people who reflect their values. We're now in a world where employers wish to assess and do an intolerance check for every new hire. This helps to ensure they're bringing in someone who matches their values and doing right by the people already there.
Horvik: Yes. It is a change in mentality, though, when you're talking about risk management and why people stay or go. Previously you might be thinking about risk as somebody who might be unsafe in the workplace. Indeed, you're looking at who has the right qualifications. But now, you might see how they are in real life. How are they speaking out to the world? How do they interact with people? Is that a concern related to company culture?
Mones: And, by extension, you may never meet that person "in person." You might only get to know this new hire in your organization through the online record. So, in some ways, I think COVID has accelerated this and a distributed work environment.
Horvik: When you think about who is using this, are you seeing any particular industries or professions that seem to be early adopters or moving into a more adoptive mentality? Who are the ones that seem to benefit most from it? Is there an industry that you have in mind? Are there specific jobs that people are adding this to their screening package?
Mones: It's an astute observation that we're in this post-early-adopter phase. In startups, we call it crossing the chasm. We started with the Apple-watch-wearing folks, TechCrunch and
Business Insider reading, very tech-forward folks. And now we're seeing much wider adoption.
The early sectors we began to see in terms of verticals were financial services, access to sensitive financial systems, etc. They have high revenue per employee, and more risk per employee, thereby, more screening. Think healthcare, technology, media, and entertainment. What we're now starting to see is, again, crossing the chasm to mass adoption. We're seeing all types of industries that are universally adopting this solution.
Horvik: One of the crucial reasons we are having this conversation right now is that it's never too early for HR to start planning their budgets for next quarter or next year. And discovering what that screening looks like. We see employers look at adding and embracing a more enhanced search scope. Maybe you start small. Perhaps you start with a couple of different job roles. Maybe try adding it to one of your packages. It doesn't have to be everything. Test it out, and see how it feels. It's nice, too, because employers can get those quick overviews of the specific things they might want to consider. It will be just a couple of sheets of paper versus pouring through hundreds of web pages. When you think of that savings alone, you don't have to employ an assistant and a generalist or anything like that when you do it in-house. So, on that note, how can HR professionals compel their executive team that this is a worthwhile investment?
Mones: Because of the history of social media screening and the tendency to do it in-house, people must ask an initial question. "How can I do this in an FCRA or EEO way? How can I set up a program and remain compliant?" The short story probably goes beyond the scope of this conversation, but the bottom line is that you can not only do this legally, but it's also done in hundreds of countries worldwide every day.
Thousands of checks are being run, and decisions are being made. I think the first piece is to explain to your executive team the benefits of being able to protect yourself. That's number one. But I would say one of the most significant benefits we're seeing today is what we alluded to - screening is not just this dirty thing that happens at the front of the funnel that we don't want to talk about.
Social media screening can directly impact a company's retention and engagement strategy. What I mean by that, is that our culture, our productivity, is not based on the employees we had in 2019, or at the beginning of 2020, and the foundation we built. Certainly, that's a part of it. Still, our day-to-day productivity, employee NPS scores, and employee engagement reflect everyone inside of that company today.
A lot of what we think about the benefit is this question about doing advanced screening and discovering if it's likely that this person may come in and say something intolerant to another
employee or a client. When we think about social media screening, we're trying to say that this may improve the employee experience. I always say quite simply, imagine that everybody in your company gets an intolerance check.
Imagine that you were to look at intolerance and intolerance alone. Maybe harassment, maybe threats. What would that do for the way that people work together and the way that people engage? That, I would say, is the number one value. And, of course, if you have executives or distributed sales teams out in the field, you may want to ensure that these people reflect your brand's values.
“You have to think, at the end of the day, are people happy? Do they feel connected?”
Horvik: I like that you bring up the idea of that built-in trust, where you know you're not walking into a room wondering if everyone's aligned or if there were something that would make you uncomfortable. We've talked about this before. Culture comes down to, and translates heavily, into retention. That is one of those ways that you can support your culture in some significant and measurable ways.
Mones: You have to think, at the end of the day, are people happy? Do they feel connected? Do they feel that sense of belonging? And that it's not just, "is my compensation, right? Is my performance clear? Is my manager respectful? Is my manager investing in me?"
Just think about how much time we spend at work in our lives. How can we cultivate a workplace that reflects those core values for all our people? We're not saying everyone has to like the color blue or vote for the same politician; that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about the non-negotiables. We keep going back to it, but intolerance, threats, and harassment. Those are the things we want to try to identify and hopefully correct before that person becomes a key member of your team.
Horvik: Right. Safety isn't just about physical safety when you think about absolute well-being. Thinking back just a bit more, getting to the basics of understanding what social media screening is, can you tell me a little bit more about the social media platforms included when you do something like social media screening? Is it just going to be those Mega platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter - hot places where people go for publicly available information? What other platforms are included if somebody runs a social media search?
Mones: Certainly, it's the ones you mentioned. If you think about where the most content comes from, it's the sites with the most users and engagement, which are Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Reddit and YouTube, to a lesser degree. The important thing to remember about social media screening is that this is a wide-ranging check covering anything publicly available about your subject. You might have had a donation website, Flickr, or MySpace. That's still around, by the way. But you know, this is a complete publicly available web search, including social media about your subject. Anything that could be construed about your person through the online record, that's what we're filtering through.
Horvik: Well, tech has come a long way since those AOL days and getting your little CD Rom. So, thinking about Fama's technology, what does that look like? How do you know you're looking at the right person? I think that might be a question that some people wonder. How do you, with your technology, have confidence that you're looking at the right person?
Mones: This is critical to any social media screening, fulfillment, or background check. Entity resolution is a crucial part. There are some approaches where we've seen companies asking a candidate for a username or maybe their password in some cases. That is not the correct approach. You should not be asking a candidate for their username and password. What Fama does, in partnership with Verified Credentials, is use data like name, address, or email address to find a person's complete web presence using automation to start.
Think of the first phase as finding likely web results and likely social media results about a subject based on the identifiers provided to us through the Verified Credentials integration. From there, we have an analyst that will go in and confirm that the results are the subject in question. Every report gets the human touch, and we match on a minimum of three identifiers, which is the FCRA standard for achieving the maximum possible accuracy. This is the best-in-class approach to social media screening. So, that's how we do it. A combination of tech and people in the same workflow. Tech makes a job easier, but a person goes in and confirms that the results belong to the subject in question, which is not unlike other types of background checks where people are still involved to ensure accuracy.
“This is not a score. This is not a thumbs up or a thumbs down. It's not a yes or a no or a recommendation on a candidate based on what they tweeted, what they posted, how many restaurant check-ins they have, or pictures of their dog.”
Horvik: We are speaking the same language on that. Hopefully, that gives some peace of mind about how these things are processed and how you get that information. Let's talk about candidates' experience and perception of social media screening. I think employers are coming around to it, but employers may want to help candidates understand that it's concerning content that they're looking for, and they're not trying to single anybody out. No one is looking or prying into their privacy. What would you say to employers and candidates who might view social media screening as an invasion of privacy?
Mones: I think there are a few pieces to this. For one, there's the compliant side of the publicly available information, as we discussed. There's never any friending or trying to get private
information about someone. But also, from an FCRA perspective, if you're using this for pre-employment screening purposes, you've got to get the candidate's consent. You must follow the pre-adverse, adverse action work flow, allowing that candidate to contest the results that may come back.
The critical piece here is to follow the law and be clear about what it is and isn't. We're not going to show an employer, through our filtering, anything irrelevant to the job. The employer makes that call; makes that decision. In the same way you select certain package types when you're running a background check that reflects the role you're filling, you might not run, for example, an MVR on someone who is not driving for the job. But with social media, it's very similar. You might say we would only want to report, filter, and see something related to intolerance. The employer will only see, should it exist, that reference to intolerance, which is a single percentage of the overall population of people that we screen. 2% to 4%, depending upon the industry. When people are in their work environment, they get to know each other. Other employees may see when they come onboard and meet that new hire, or a customer may see when they friend that person on LinkedIn. We're only exposing a tiny portion of what exists, which is the way to think about it.
Horvik: I think it's important to send home that this is all publicly available information and not prying into something that you would have guarded or protected otherwise. We've already talked about how this helps employers, but you bring it back to employee experience. Do you have any other thoughts on how that impacts the overall employee experience?
Mones: Yes, it's an interesting concept to flip on its head, which is to say that screening those coming in impacts those who are already there. It even invites, I think, periodic checks. I wouldn't say I like to use the term “monitoring” per se, because I don't think you need to monitor what your people say daily on social media. That's probably not necessary. But maybe some roles that someone is in, like national security, I could see it.
Generally, the concept of an employee experience happens every day, every moment, every meeting, every follow-up, and every email. So, when we think about the employee experience, from a screening standpoint, we are providing this advanced filter at the front of the funnel. We potentially rescreen periodically, and we, as a third-party service provider, help that employer construct each of those moments free from intolerance, threats, harassment, the sort of thing that, when another employee hears it, is less engaged in the meeting.
Horvik: I like that you bring that into the day-to-day and being a productivity killer. Even to have somebody clam up or not feel willing to do what they're there and paid to do because somebody says something that might be out of line with company values. Some may even feel unsafe, potentially—all good points. As far as periodic screening and rechecks go, there can be a purpose and reason for you to do other repeated background checks. It's all based on your level of risk or risk matrix for a particular position. Employers might want to consider whether it makes sense to recheck social media for certain roles when they update their annual criminal check.
Many of our clients have that periodic recheck mentality rather than continuous monitoring. That doesn't seem to be quite as common. But seeing more of that long-term approach by protecting employee experience does happen quite frequently. Are there any other insights you can offer about how employers are already using this information for hiring decisions? I think understanding that once they get that information, are there certain types of concerning the content that would more likely result in an adverse hiring decision? Does Fama track any data on this? Or do you hear any stories from your clients?
Mones: I think the way that this information is adjudicated is important. I always want to point out that it isn't about hiring or not hiring a candidate. It isn't always a binary decision.
Frequently we'll see that this can be a moment of intervention for the candidate. Let's be honest, when we find a candidate we like, we want to move forward with them, right? Especially in this economy, many of us want to hire the person we have our heart set on and don't want to deal with what comes out in the background check. We are hoping that it's clear every time we run them. The idea is that depending upon how egregious it is; the employer might say to the candidate, "You know, we saw what you said, and just so you know, it doesn't fly here. That sort of thing is not part of our culture, not part of how we engage. So, you can appreciate that we want you to delete that. We want to stress that that's not what's okay at our company." The moment of intervention can also be a course correction. Sometimes acting intolerant towards others might have been biases developed over years or decades. Of course, it sometimes reveals that this person is not a fit.
There's no way they could explain homophobic comments or posts about using or selling cocaine online. It does happen, believe it or not. The general idea is defining low impact, low probability, or high impact; you see a hit rate of anywhere between 3% to 7% overall.
Horvik: When we think about discrepancy rates or hit rates on background screens and criminal checks, those end up in the 5% to 6% range. It is justifying that you may have to look at those sources to find that needle in the haystack. If something is serious, potentially concerning, or risky, it's worth looking for. Would you say there's any difference? You just mentioned an example of an individualized assessment of somebody with one severe or concerning incident. Do you see multiple posts that raise those flags? Are those things escalated more often? How often do you see somebody with a social media rap sheet or something akin to that end up begging a different kind of conversation? Or does that typically result in more of an adverse hiring decision in your experience?
Mones: The individual assessment is undoubtedly one way to think about it. Once you get a hit back, what do we do? Frame it out before you even kick it off. Maybe there are mitigating circumstances that you might apply before that individualized assessment.
To your point, it's how recently something was posted. The frequency of a particular flag hit. Then, sometimes, there's that very gray area of the tone. You know it when you see it. Sometimes someone's making a joke. Sometimes it might come off a little tongue-in-cheek, and maybe it wasn't construed the right way online. But overall, it's establishing a policy that fits within the company's culture. Reflective on what you do with other background checks when those come back. Once you go through the onboarding, you start to see that this is how you adjudicate. And very significantly, you limit the potential information you must adjudicate because of that filtering on the front end. It takes the vast universe of information you may see and brings it down to strictly what you're looking for. That's the main piece that we try to stress because, justifiably, if an employer is thinking about starting a social media screening program and thinks they might accidentally see the pregnancy announcements, they don't want to start on something like that. It's just not something that you want to look at. You must stress that you'll get the filter at the front end. And then, of course, we'll need to adjudicate what comes back when we do get it.
Horvik: It's a little different from a traditional background check. You can't unsee something. That does cross some paths in local jurisdictions where that might be a concern. I think this applies to something more subjective. It's more about the human that's coming to work and what their personal life is like. You don't need to know those things, and it can be problematic for HR to see those things if they are checking social media in-house. We have heard, talking with others on the Fama team, the idea of getting a second opinion. So, if you have your hiring policy, some of this stuff can be difficult to interpret, like, "am I seeing this right? Is this as bad as I think it is? Is it against our policy?" And maybe having somebody on your team, maybe in a different department, that has a fresh perspective or set of eyes can help double down on that logic or perspective, especially when some things seem like a subjective turf.
I know you mentioned at the beginning how many employers are already doing social media screening in some capacity. As we touched on before, oftentimes, they might be doing that in-house. I think driving home some of the risks, and the downfalls of that are important. Keeping social media screening in-house and having different hiring managers randomly looking at things, knowing that potentially adverse hiring decisions are being made with information that's not being documented. Is there anything else you could share just to send that point home about the benefits of using a third party to help?
Mones: Totally. Doing it in-house is probably the most significant risk of a program like this. We've covered a few pieces and probably exhausted them at this point, seeing what you shouldn't see. That's one big piece of it. But the second piece is the cornerstone, again, of the FCRA; the consistency of the program. Let's play it out. You have a team of analysts or interns doing these checks; you're relying on humans doing checks the same way every time. Using individual-by-individual frameworks for determining what intolerance is, or is that an illegal drug by that nickname or slang term someone's using? The consistency of the program, if you're doing it individual-by-individual, may lead you to a point where you're not running these checks in the way you should be. It must be the same way every single time for each candidate, which may then, in turn, invite bias into the conversation and then into the way that you run your checks. The primary exposure, though, is seeing what you shouldn't see. You can't un-ring that bell. If you do it yourself, you're likely to see what you shouldn't see. In a deposition, the candidate could say, "Did you look at my social media? Okay, you did. What did you see?"
I don't want to use scare tactics, but that's what they say. That's how this plays out when companies start doing it solo. Also, of course, the time savings. Do we want to be Googling people and Facebooking them all day, or could we be doing something that is a better use of our time?
“Employers might want to consider whether it makes sense to recheck social media for certain roles when they update their annual criminal check. Many of our clients have that periodic recheck mentality rather than continuous monitoring.”
Horvik: Certainly, the benefit of having those results all in the same background report, like at Verified Credentials, all of that is just augmented. In that same background report, with your criminal search history and employment verifications, all of it is on one document. That makes record retention easier and less of a headache for many employers. We see that employers appreciate that kind of benefit. Let alone, it's easier to read a report than to figure out how to document all the information in an organized and compliant way.
Last question for you, Ben. You know, we're talking about the adoption of social media screening, but really, it's still a relatively new practice. You've been around for eight years. I want your thoughts on where you see the industry going from here.
Mones: Sure. I think you'll see more adoption and new product types that range by industry and company type over the next year or so. We're at a point where the companies that invest more in background checks have expanded their background check program to include advanced tools and techniques like social media screening. I think what you'll end up seeing in the next 12 or 18 months or so is adoption at a much broader level.
What do our employees care about? What do our customers care about? So, I would say a normalization over the next year or two. I think it's going to become something that's no longer a question of should we consider it and more of a question of who's got the best tech on the market to perform social media screening.
Horvik: So, that's where Fama comes in. Thank you again for this conversation, Ben. It's been a pleasure.
Mones: It's been a pleasure.
Horvik: And our thanks to Fama. You're just an outstanding partner. You have some unique solutions and a wealth of knowledge about this "new frontier of screening," as the PBSA called it. You know this is an excellent opportunity for many in our Verified Credentials community to get to learn more about social media screening and potentially consider it as part of their future background check package. More and more HR professionals are considering next-generation screening. It's already proving to be a valuable component to a growing number of companies.
Interview conducted on October 27, 2022