By Amber Stockham, SPHR, NBOA
Hiring mission-appropriate faculty and staff is one of the most challenging elements of human resources in independent schools, even in a normal market. With schools facing increased turnover and additional demands from potential employees as a result of the pandemic, schools must deftly navigate the selection process and make rapid hiring decisions to avoid losing top candidates. Background checks have always been a part of the selection process, but they have come to the forefront in recent years as schools have been forced to wrestle with the lasting effects of employee misbehavior.
Unfortunately, a criminal background check can only reveal past crimes for which a person was convicted. Many schools want to delve deeper to learn more about the behaviors of candidates whose values may not align with the school before they are hired. To do this, scrutinizing social media seems prudent, but dangerous. To learn more about how this might be done safely and legally, I sat down with Whitney Van Pelt, the director of business development for Social Intelligence, a company that conducts social media screenings for employers.
Van Pelt: Background checks are about alleviating risk, and avoiding bad publicity that can damage a school’s reputation and safety risks. You do a criminal background check to make sure there’s nothing egregious out there, but personality assessment tests and other niche checks can also be done to ensure a candidate’s values are aligned with the school. This includes social media screening, .
With a social media check, we are looking for certain behaviors that are universally viewed as unacceptable. We’ve broken them down into four categories. One is demonstration of intolerance: racism, ageism, sexism, any kind of bigotry. The second category would be sexually explicit material. Anything that’s potentially violent would be the third category, and the fourth is potentially illegal activity. More specifically, we’re talking about references to drugs, underage drinking and fraud. Those are behaviors that we look to flag on our report, and we take everything else out of the equation. These behaviors often violate code of conduct policies, so it makes it easy to make an actionable legal decision.
This is publicly available information. If you’re also just putting out content that condones violence, for example, for anybody to see without caring what your online presence looks like, that’s a sign of poor decision-making and that you’re not going to protect your own personal brand.
Stockham: Most schools are hesitant to do social media background checks because they've been told that it creates legal liability by revealing things schools can't know about. How do you avoid that?
Van Pelt: It certainly is a legal minefield if you are doing it yourself in house, which is what most school staff members think about when they think of doing a social media check. And they’re not experts. They don’t know that they’ve found the right person, and they most likely don’t have a set of guidelines and criteria for what they’re looking for. It’s very problematic to do it in-house because there’s a lot of information that you can’t unsee. We redact all information that will create bias and potential discrimination claims and deliver only the actionable content. We give school leaders a report that they can use in conjunction with school policies to make solid hiring decisions.
Stockham: How do you perform a social media screening?
Van Pelt: We only use publicly available information, but we delve deep. Each individual’s online presence is unique, and each platform that you’re on has a variety of privacy settings. It’s hard to navigate privacy settings, and some people purposefully leave their accounts open to the public to gather followers and likes. Even on an account that’s private, some information of interest is available in their bio or their cover photo.
We have a proprietary system that we use to find [social media] accounts and confirm who they are. Then we capture concerning content with screenshots. Sometimes within those screenshots, we need to redact any protected information, so the HR team at the school is privy only to the actionable information.
We host the completed report in our platform for schools to review. A dashboard will show the different flags that surfaced as well as interactive statistics . Schools can download the report as a PDF if they need to pass it along for any reason, but we keep the reports on our server in compliance with the Federal Credit Reporting Act, so schools don’t have to keep reports in their files and worry about compliance.
Stockham: What do you recommend to schools when a report has concerning information on it?
Van Pelt: We never say, “Hire this person. Don’t hire that person.” These are reports that say, “H ere is potentially concerning activity. Take a look at it and then make your decision.” Not all reports result in a non-hire. We actually have a training program that helps our clients review reports and score or assess them.
There are basically three outcomes from a flagged report. The report can be egregious and the candidate is not hired. Or it can be a teachable moment, where they have a conversation with the candidate, and the school may ask the candidate to clean up their public postings or make the account private. The last is what we call “documentation only.” It’s not something the school wants to talk to the candidate about, and the report won’t result in adverse action, but the school will keep it as documentation in case a problem arises.
You will sometimes need to have some difficult conversations and make some difficult decisions as well, but you need to think about what matters to you as an organization when making those decisions. And you need to write your policies to be clear about what you don’t want to see in your organization. That way, when you get a flagged report, you can ask, “Does this violate our policy?” We work hard with our clients to help them create policies and develop their adjudication process.
Stockham: Why might an organization hesitate to use your service?
Van Pelt: Most organizations think this is happening already. They assume their hiring manager is doing it. And their employees might think it’s an invasion of their privacy, infringing on their free speech. But what we’ve found is that once the school explains what they’re looking for and why, employees understand. They value their community and want to protect it as much as the school does. This is one more tool to keep the students and faculty safe.