Company culture is a significant driver of success, and a strong culture attracts and retains top employees, fostering teamwork and trust. Conversely, a toxic culture can thwart any company. Patrick Whitesell, executive chairman of Endeavor, an entertainment and media agency, stated, “You can have all the right strategies in the world; if you don’t have the right culture, you’re dead.”
Social media has evolved rapidly over the last 10 years and has become a fundamental way that people engage with one another. Posts and their underlying meaning—including both what is intended and how it can be perceived—can make a powerful statement for all the world to see. What is said on social media does not exist in a vacuum, and what is posted from personal accounts says a lot about a person and can have a legitimate effect on the perceptions of an organization with which that person is associated.
Before the widespread adoption of social media, a person dragging down a company’s culture was typically noticeable in what was heard within the walls of the company. Perhaps it was consistently negative comments about the company or other employees around the water cooler, an off-color joke, or use of an insensitive phrase. In all likelihood, there was no way to predict this behavior before an individual was hired. When an incident occurred, irreparable damage may already have been done, and frequently, negative behaviors went undetected or a formal complaint was never made for fear of causing trouble or retribution.
Today, an ongoing record of tweets and posts can leave an indelible record that can define a person’s reputation—in both positive and negative ways. This can help organizations spot people that may not be a good fit for their cultures.
The background screening industry continues to evolve to help employers build strong cultures and create safe workplaces. Candidates are no longer simply checked when they come in the door, but may be rescreened at certain intervals or have records continuously monitored to identify relevant changes that may need to be addressed. When it comes to social media, 7 in 10 employers (70%) use social networking sites to research job candidates during the hiring process. With more than half of the world’s population on social media, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen instances of personal posting having professional ramifications.
As part of communicating a variety of expectations, companies are required to notify both applicants and employees when they are subject to being either screened or monitored as a condition of employment. This may include criminal records, motor vehicle records, or social media, just to name a few. The collective decisions made by an employee population on meeting the expectations that have been set are a key driver to culture.
Actions at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, will be remembered not only for what took place, but for the way they were broadcast to the world. While some of the images and footage widely seen were captured by traditional news outlets, a lot of the story was told—in near real time—by video captured on cell phones and posted to social media.
In response, House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Speier expressed a desire for the Defense Department to start looking at social media posts as part of the security clearance process. According to Military.com, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appears prepared to take a much more aggressive approach to monitoring troops’ social media following reports that some service members and veterans took part in the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Changes in military employment policy may impact government contractors and then possibly other businesses. In a short time, there have already been widespread impacts in the HR space, putting into question the factors that determine someone’s credibility to obtain or maintain employment.
Impacts to Businesses
Soon after January 6, many company executives and HR professionals began to ask themselves, “Do I know how my employees are behaving online and the potential negative consequences they can create?” Flagging behavior that violates company policies or is not aligned with established company values is now more important than it has ever been.
Social media screening done in advance of employment—or in conjunction with monitoring during employment—can provide specific proof of behavior that violates company policies or overall expectations rooted in a company code of conduct. Ben Mones, CEO and founder of Fama Technologies, the world’s largest social media screening company and a leader in applying artificial intelligence to background screening services, stated, “Companies are not seeking to use social media screening to understand their candidates’ political affiliations. The concern I hear every day is the need to know if applicants or employees are promoting extremist ideologies that might put a person in danger, or in some cases, promoting the dismantling of the federal and state government here in the U.S.”
According to a recent Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder, nearly half of employers check up on current employees on social media. Just over one-third have reprimanded or fired an employee based on content found online. However, a homegrown solution such as an internal HR team directly executing social media searches presents risk for common pitfalls. These include failing to be thorough, inadvertently violating anti-discrimination laws (obtaining personal information that should not be considered as part of a hiring decision), and inefficient use of staff time with this manual process.
With an unbiased and thorough report being reviewed as part of a well-defined social media screening program, inconstancies with company policies or overall expectations can be investigated. Actions set by the company can range from coaching to progressive discipline depending on the severity of findings. To protect the rights of employees and prevent other negative consequences, it is recommended that this new social media screening imperative be handled through a robust, proven FCRA-compliant screening program. The ability to challenge results through pre-adverse action is also crucial for compliance.
Automating the process with a third party and establishing risk criteria helps companies get the data needed to aid in their hiring and ongoing monitoring decisions. Social media isn’t going anywhere, and companies must now adapt in order to maintain the strength of their corporate cultures and to protect their brands.
Alla Schay is the general manager of the Industrials, Government & Education group of Sterling, a leading provider of background and identity services. She previously served as Sterling’s client services and account management leader, chief operating officer, and chief human resources officer. Alla is an operations management professional with experience in business process transformation, Six Sigma analysis, and software and CRM implementation.