Strategy Column: Should You Google Candidates?

Editor’s Note: You are reading the first article by ERE’s new strategy and leadership columnist, Mary Faulkner. In case you missed the post and video introducing Mary, you may view it here


News broke last week that Amazon was being sued by one manager because, among other things, her boss was making her look up candidates’ social-media profiles to determine their race and gender. 

When you read something like this, you probably immediately think, “Oh, well, what that manager did is obviously wrong. Companies shouldn’t do that.”

I hope that’s what you think. If it’s not, we have bigger issues. But let’s run with the idea that you aren’t a horrible person and move on.

Clearly, searching internet profiles for protected-class information is a bad idea. Even if you try to make the argument that your organization is attempting to ensure a diverse candidate pool, this is still a bad idea. 

Still, let’s assume you like a candidate and you’re “just curious” about the person’s social-media footprint. Is it OK to do a search in that situation?

It’s Not Right, But…

First, let’s address arguments people use to justify Googling candidates. Some argue that you should definitely do an internet search because a background check won’t necessarily capture all the bone-headed and/or illegal things some candidates do. Others would say to search someone’s Facebook or Instagram page to make sure a candidate is a “culture fit” for the organization — because isn’t it important to know what kind of poor judgement someone shows by posting racy photos from a vacation in Cabo?

I am not one of those people. I don’t advocate Googling your candidates.

That doesn’t mean I’m against checking LinkedIn or links that candidates themselves provide to their blog or their work. However, I struggle to understand how what someone posts on Facebook about cats or strip clubs is relevant to performing a job as a receptionist. 

Part of my aversion comes from the fact that I’ve done the bulk of my recruiting in Colorado, which is one of four states (including New York, California, and North Carolina) to pass laws protecting employees from being punished for off-duty conduct. Granted, these laws apply to existing employees, but it’s good practice to extend the same protection to candidates.

I also think it’s almost impossible to remain detached in your review of a person’s social-media accounts. Intent may start off pure, but it can easily devolve into moral judgement.

Except, hiring isn’t about whether a candidate engages in something you personally find inappropriate. It should be about whether something is relevant to the job.  

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Plus, if a candidate puts forth a complaint that you made a decision not to hire them because of discriminatory practices, it would be hard for you to prove that your internet search didn’t impact your decision. Furthermore, as more and more states push for second-chance hiring for felons — a move I applaud, by the way — I struggle to see why you would turn a candidate down because of something posted on personal social media without some sort of process for appeal.

Frankly, I don’t want to know how candidates spend their weekends, or if they belong to swingers clubs, or if they root for the Chiefs (shudder). I want to know if they can do the job for which they’re being hired. That means having a good, structured interview process, relevant skills assessments, or other demonstrations that will help you determine likelihood of success in the role. It also means having a good background-check process to make sure the person you’re hiring isn’t a serial killer. 

It’s OK…(Sometimes)

Having said all that, there are times when Googling a candidate makes sense. If you’re hiring someone to run your company’s social-media account, you need to see how they handle their own. If you’re hiring someone who will act as a spokesperson for your organization, who will be the “face” of your company, you may want to review their digital footprint.

These searches should be conducted by someone who is qualified to evaluate findings — whether it’s someone from legal, someone from compliance, or someone who has extensive experience in conducting investigations or other background checks. You should also ensure your organization has established workable guidelines around the use of social media and internet background checks, along with a solid documented adjudication process to consider findings on a case-by-case basis. 

Part of your guidelines should include formal identification of the roles for which an internet search is deemed necessary. This can be similar to how you already (should!) consider job requirements and bona fide occupational qualifications to determine your background check packages, as well as how you follow Fair Credit Reporting Act requirements — take the same approach with internet searches. Ask whether what you may find will be directly tied to the job requirements and go from there. You can also use discrimination laws regarding off-duty conduct to guide your decision-making. 

Will there be situations where someone slips through the cracks? Yes. Because it’s true — background checks don’t always catch everything. You’ll hire racists. You’ll hire sexual harassers. You may even hire people who were accused of embezzlement but cut a deal so the charges don’t show up on a criminal record. 

But I’m not convinced that doing an internet search on all your candidates is the best way to prevent any of this. People have the right to be themselves (or versions thereof) on social media, no matter how much you might personally dislike some of their choices. No one should be banned as a candidate because of their taste in cat videos.

If you hire awful people, hold them accountable for their actions at work. Fire them if they do something wrong. But don’t wish you had looked at their TikTok videos before you made the offer.

Mary is a senior advisor with IA, a boutique consulting firm focused on HR transformation. She is also a talent strategist and business leader with almost 15 years experience in helping organizations achieve their goals. After working on the operations side of start-ups and small companies, Mary landed in HR by way of learning and development, with extensive experience in leadership and organizational development, coaching, key talent planning, talent acquisition, performance management, business partnering, HRIS, process and policy creation, and instructional design.

In addition to her work within companies, Mary authors a leadership development blog called Surviving Leadership to continue the dialogue around the challenges of leadership – both being a leader and being led. 

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