We’ve all done a quick Google of a competitor, friend, even ourselves. And increasingly, recruiters are turning to online research to screen potential candidates as well. Identity research has become an essential step in the hiring process, with 92% of U.S. companies using social media to recruit and screen candidates. It’s no surprise, as hiring managers have a tough job sorting through applicants today. Often faced with ultra-competitive positions and a flood of resumes, knowing your candidates is more important now than ever.

With online screening, you can create a complete picture of a candidate to be sure they’re the right fit for a position. Research allows you to better understand what they have to offer, learning more about their background, expertise, and network, and even catch red flags before they become a problem. But this wealth of information can also be a liability, with opportunities for mistaken identities, discrimination, and even missing out on a great employee. Follow our guide to online candidate research to make sure your employment screenings are fair, deliberate, and effective.

Candidate Research

Information Sources

In addition to Google, employers are increasingly turning to social networks and other online tools for research. A 2012 CareerBuilder survey indicates that 37% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates, and more will soon join their ranks: 11% reported that they plan to start screening via social media. Branching out beyond search engines is a great strategy, but exactly where should you look, and how can you use these sources to dig deeper?

  • LinkedIn is a recruiter’s dream, creating a one stop shop of resumes, references, networks, and professional accomplishments. It’s also where applicants are likely to be on their best behavior, but a great LinkedIn profile is a good resource for finding out where candidates really shine. That’s why 63% of employers who use the social web to research candidates turn to the professional networking site. Be sure to look for a professional photo, a carefully crafted profile, and engagement that goes beyond simple connections. Great candidates should have recommendations, both given and received, group activities, discussions, and industry engagement.

  • Facebook is even more popular with employers than LinkedIn, with 65% using the one billion member network to discover information about potential employees. While LinkedIn is irreplacable for learning about a candidate’s professional qualifications, Facebook is more likely to reveal their personal life. It’s a great tool for determining whether a candidate is a good culture fit for the company, but it’s also a common source of red flags, like embarrassing photos or discriminatory comments.

  • Twitter offers further insight into a candidate’s professional accomplishments, interests, and personality. Though tweets are a short 140 characters or less, you can still learn a lot about what has a potential employee’s attention from their Twitter feed. Retweets, favorite hashtags, even the people they follow and are followed by can reveal their level of professional influence and understanding.

  • Google+ isn’t among the most popular social networks for candidate research, but don’t count it out: Google+ has the second-highest number of active users after Facebook. And with search engine roots, the service has useful search tools that make performing research easy.

  • Tried and true, Google is a great first step in online candidate research. It’s the ultimate source for recruiters, pointing to blogs, articles, personal or portfolio sites, community involvement, and other online contributions. Be sure to use a candidate’s full name, and quotations (i.e. “John Doe”) to reveal results that are relevant to your candidate. Also keep in mind that if you’re logged into your Google account, you’ll be shown customized results, which may or may not be beneficial to finding what you’re looking for. For ongoing monitoring, consider setting up a Google Alert with the candidate’s name.

Key Facts:

  • 37% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates

  • 11% don’t screen via social networking yet, but plan to do so

  • 63% of employers use LinkedIn to screen candidates

  • 65% of employers screen via Facebook

Make the Most of Your Search

A recruiter with excellent search skills and research know-how can uncover valuable information that might not be found on the first page of a simple Google search. Experienced recruiters share how they maximize candidate research online:

  • “The world wide web is expansive and you can get lost in research if you are not careful. I tend to perform a quick search prior to the candidate’s first face-to-face interview, post phone screen. Before an offer is tendered, I will invest a little more time in the research process. I find this approach is the best use of my time.” – Megan McCann, McCann Partners.

  • “Be thorough. Make sure the profile actually belongs to the candidate, and if in doubt, don’t just assume it’s the right profile or you could end up discounting a perfect candidate by accident.” – Amy Edwards, Bubble Jobs.

  • “On Google, put the person’s name in quotation marks. Do a search with their middle initial and one with their middle name.” – Bruce Hurwitz, Hurwitz Strategic Staffing.

Red Flags

By now, it’s common knowledge that most recruiters research candidates online before an interview. So you’d think that before sending out a resume, most job seekers would carefully remove offensive opinions, inappropriate photos, and other embarrassing online entries. While some heed the warning, or simply haven’t created questionable material in the first place, others leave red flags for recruiters, and 34% of hiring managers report dismissing candidates based on what they’ve found on social media. What should put you on high alert?

  • A blatant disregard for ethics or the law, which often translates into a problem with authority.

  • Extreme opinions, including sexist, racist, pornographic, or insulting comments may reveal a candidate who doesn’t work well with others and may even become a human resources liability.

  • Crude language and inappropriate content shows a lack of maturity that suggests candidates aren’t ready for a professional role.

  • Negative news stories, especially those involving criminal offenses, should be investigated.

  • Poor communication skills, including grammar mistakes or rude messages.

  • Drinking or using drugs, especially if prohibited by company policy.

  • Badmouthing of previous employers, coworkers, or clients reveals a candidate who may now work well with others, and may even speak poorly of you some day. The same goes for sharing confidential information.

  • Lying about qualifications shows dishonesty from the start.

  • A complete lack of information doesn’t immediately seem like a problem, but most hiring managers today expect candidates to share their professional accomplishments online.

Red flag content should set off warning bells, but make sure you have reliable information before immediately disqualifying a candidate. Is there a pattern of offensive images and crude language, or have you just stumbled on a few vacation photos? Additionally, verify that you’ve found the correct profile, or that a news story actually relates to the candidate you’re considering. For lesser offenses, consider bringing them up at the interview. Hiring manager James Agate prefers not to take red flags at face value, instead investigating further or discussing them with the candidate.

Fact:

34% of hiring managers report dismissing candidates based on what they’ve found on social media, including:

  • inappropriate content

  • poor communication skills

  • badmouthing former employers, coworkers, or clients

  • lying about qualifications

 

What to Look For

While red flags quickly catch the eye of many recruiters, online research may also reveal positive indicators, including a good company fit, professional image, and great communication skills. In fact, 29% of hiring managers have extended an offer based on positive information they’ve found in an online candidate assessment. What’s really important to look for while researching candidates?

  • Professionalism: “If it’s public, it has to be professional,” says executive recruiter Bruce Hurwitz. That’s a good rule to follow when assessing a candidate’s online identity. Every employee’s actions are a reflection on your company, so all public material should be positive and professional. Look for well-written content free of grammar and spelling errors.

  • Industry discussions: Look for activity in industry-specific communities, including social media groups. Check out Hinge Marketing’s useful guide for discovering social networks within any industry.

  • Professional organization memberships: Involvement with industry-leading organizations indicates that a candidate is serious about their profession, and has access to valuable support resources.

  • Active, complete online profiles: It’s not enough for a candidate to have a basic LinkedIn or Twitter account. AnnMarie McIlwain with CareerFuel looks for potential employees that care enough to share detailed information about their background. You should also seek out those who actively network through discussion groups, recommendations both given and received, and connections with industry influencers.

  • Resume consistency: Look for information that supports what an applicant has shared on his or her resume. Work history timelines and accomplishments should all add up properly in a profile that supports professional qualifications.

  • Positive connections with employers and colleagues: Search for signs that your candidate works well with others, including good relationships with their current and former employers and coworkers.

  • Thought leadership: Experienced professionals should demonstrate their authority online with subject matter expertise. Awards, citations as an expert, mentions in press releases, guest blogs, and well-written articles indicate that your candidate has shared thoughtful contributions. Search for these indicators that their expertise is respected by other professionals.

  • Demonstration of passion: Does your candidate really care about their role? You can find out by looking for involvement in professional interest projects outside of work. Participation in volunteer or nonprofit projects shows that a candidate cares enough to commit their expertise to the greater good.

  • A positive brand: Candidates should support their experience and authority with a solid online brand. Look for an online resume or online portfolio, personal blog, and industry-related content that show thoughtful contributions and interest in the field.

  • Good communication skills: Take a look at your candidate’s online interactions. Are they able to effectively communicate with others? They should be friendly, helpful, and authoritative in all discussions online, even in comments and forum posts.

  • Organizational fit: While you can’t entirely judge a potential employee’s personality online, you may find clues that suggest they’d be a good fit for company culture.

  • Industry connections and references: Check your candidate’s network: are they connected to influencers in the industry? Look for a robust network, including those who share good references about the candidate.

Candidates Without a Digital Footprint

If you’ve tried every Google trick you can think of, scoured Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and you’ve found little to no information about a job candidate, you may be frustrated. You may also wonder if it’s a bad sign that you haven’t uncovered any indications of life, good or bad, from your candidate. It’s a natural reaction, as Facebook abstainers are often labeled as suspicious. Do they have something to hide? Many recruiters, including Bruce Hurwitz believe a lack of information online is a problem:

“In today’s day and age, if there is no mention of you at all on the Internet, it means that no one with access to an Internet-connected computer thinks you are worth mentioning,” says Hurwitz. “No employer has included you on their website. No reporter has seen fit to quote you. You have never been moved to write or comment on anything. You have never received an award or a public “thank you.” Why would anyone want to consider such a candidate?”

Should you automatically disqualify a candidate with nothing to show online? For positions in social media or digital marketing where online presence is a part of the job, a candidate who hasn’t cultivated an online brand shows a lack of understanding and may not be right for the position. But for other positions, recruiters should consider the scope of the job when deciding whether a lack of online activity is a dealbreaker. Amy Edwards with Bubble Jobs says it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a candidate has nothing to show, and that it depends on the role. “If they have their settings set to private, it suggests their social media platforms are for personal use, rather than public consumption, so probably shouldn’t be taken into consideration when recruiting,” she says.

Research Policies

When to Research Candidates

For recruiters receiving hundreds of resumes each week, there’s just not enough time to Google every potential candidate. But those who are selected for an interview should be researched, according to most recruiters. A pre-interview screen also gives hiring managers the opportunity to understand more about the candidate before meeting in person. Screening pre-interview can help refine the list of qualified candidates, says recruiter AnnMarie McIlwain, and it’s at this point that it’s worth the time and effort necessary to do a complete search.

“In general, I do preliminary research on candidates prior to their first face-to-face interview,” says IT recruiter Megan McCann. “The information gleaned helps paint a picture of the person personally and professionally and allows me to understand more about the applicant’s accomplishments.”

Research may be useful post-interview as well, says McCann, who will typically dig a little deeper before tendering an offer. Additionally, McCann recommends thorough reference checks with contacts. But the pre-interview screen is ideal for hiring managers who don’t want to think we’ve found the perfect candidate at interview, only to discover trouble online later.

Identify Confirmation

Don’t lose a great candidate to a case of mistaken identity. Keep in mind that while your candidate’s name is John Doe, there may be many other John Does active online, and your research may lead to information that does not actually belong to your candidate.

Further, hiring managers should be sure to consider the source of any information revealed in online research. “There are no fact-checkers policing the Internet,” warns labor lawyer Tracy Moon. “An employer could be removing the most qualified applicant from hiring consideration based on inaccurate or false information.” How can you be sure that you’ve found relevant information?

  • Search by email. Many social media sites make it easy to find profiles with a user’s email address. Simply plug in the email your candidate provided on their resume, and you can be sure that their profile matches up.

  • Compare the information to your candidate’s resume or application. If your IT professional seems to be complaining about their former manager at a fast food joint, there’s a good chance you’ve found the wrong profile. Carefully consider whether what you’ve found lines up with what you believe to be true about the candidate.

  • Ask the candidate to verify information at the interview. When in doubt, simply ask your candidate if the material you’ve found belongs to them. A quick flash of recognition or embarrassment may easily reveal the truth.

  • Independently confirm what you’ve discovered. Moon points out that anyone can create a post online or write a Wikipedia article, and some online sources may simply be unreliable. That’s why it’s essential that before you make a decision based on your online search, you confirm what you’ve found. Work only with verifiable information, and check references to assess whether your research reveals an accurate view of the candidate.

Protected Information

While candidate research may be performed with the intent to confirm work history, communication skills, and other information lawfully relevant to hiring decisions, you’re also likely to reveal protected information at the same time. Profile photos can indicate a candidate’s race, Facebook timelines share marital and family status, and recent posts may reveal a candidate’s religious or political affiliation. It’s seemingly impossible to avoid stumbling upon protected information. Labor lawyer Tracy Moon warns recruiters that a decision maker’s exposure to this off-limits information may be a liability when defending discrimination claims.

“In defending discrimination claims alleging wrongful failure to hire, the most fool-proof defense is to show that the employer did not know that the applicant fit into one of the protected categories that was allegedly unlawfully considered, leading to a rejection,” says Moon. “If an HR professional knows some particular fact about an applicant obtained through an Internet search, such as his or her race, national origin, age, affliction with a progressively disabling disease, leadership in a recovering addicts support or advocacy group, church or political affiliation or sexual preference, the employer may be faced with having to “prove the negative”– i.e., demonstrate that their hiring decision was not based on that particular factor learned from the Internet search, which is always a difficult thing to do.”

Of course, it’s also difficult to avoid running across protected information, even when you’re not trying to find it. Moon explains that some employers may decide that the liability of having this information outweighs the benefits of online candidate research. But for hiring managers who feel it’s worth the risk, it is possible to minimize exposure to potentially unlawful information.

Using research assistants who do not make hiring decisions may be effective in screening out unlawful information while retaining useful research. While hiring managers may prefer to take a hands-on approach by performing candidate research personally, it’s safer to lend the task out. A research assistant can highlight information relevant to hiring decisions, such as work experience or professional articles, while omitting any irrelevant and potentially illegal facts about the candidate.

“It is risky to come into possession of knowledge upon which the law says you cannot base a hiring decision,” says Moon. If you do not ask for it and do not acquire it, you can make a persuasive case that you did not rely on it. If you possess the information, however, you may have to try to persuade a government agency, judge, or jury that it played no role in your hiring decision.”

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on:

  • race

  • color

  • religion

  • sex (including pregnancy)

  • national origin

  • age (40 or older)

  • disability

  • and genetic information

Privacy

Job seekers who create a LinkedIn profile, online portfolio, or digital resume send a clear message that they’d like hiring managers to consider the information they’ve shared. But the same might not be true for social media tools, which can be more personal in nature. You may be frustrated to come across research roadblocks like restricted Facebook profiles or protected Tweets, but resist the urge to hack in through caching, alternative logins, or other tricks. Private profiles are not a hurdle to jump over, they’re a stop sign.

Candidates have an expectation of privacy in profiles that are behind closed doors. Stick to publicly accessible information only in your pre-employment research, and be careful to respect the privacy of job seekers. Above all, definitely don’t ask candidates to share their login information with you: not only is it a breach of trust with a potential employee, it’s also very likely illegal.

Research Consistency

Googling a potential new hire seems like an informal task, but when performed inconsistently, a simple search for information can become a major liability for employers. “If Internet searches are conducted on one applicant for a particular job, Internet searches for all applicants being considered for the position must be conducted to avoid claims of discriminatory hiring,” explains labor lawyer Tracy Moon.

Moon recommends that hiring managers adopt an Internet search policy to maintain consistency and research all candidates fairly. This policy should:

  • Identify circumstances that call for research to be conducted

  • Provide an opportunity for individualized assessments before acting on research results

  • Incorporate additional hiring tools, including character and employment reference checks

  • Determine the accuracy of information and its relevance to job duties

  • Require that information obtained during research be retained as records according to federal law

Maintaining Research Records

Federal law requires employers to retain certain records collected during the hiring process. These include records that hiring managers are likely to be familiar with, like a candidate’s resume, cover letter, and employment application. Unlike these records, online searches don’t leave a clear paper trail, but as they are a part of hiring decisions, employers are required to retain them. Labor lawyer Tracy Moon advises that employers retain search information for at least one year, as required by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Putting Information to Work

Once you’ve completed your research, it’s time to put information into action. How can you use your online screening to qualify candidates and discuss what you’ve found in the interview?

  • Don’t be embarrassed to share what you know. Let’s be honest, researching candidates online feels a bit like snooping, and no one wants to get caught snooping. But as a hiring manager, it’s your duty to ensure that a candidate is the right one for the job, and that means thoroughly researching their background and qualifications. With nearly three out of four hiring managers and recruiters checking social profiles, candidates today understand that public information is up for grabs, and hiring decision makers are likely to act on it. In fact, says executive recruiter Megan McCann, discussing researched information sends a message that you’re serious about a commitment to quality. “It demonstrates to candidates that we are thoughtfully approaching their search and we want to be valuable partners to them throughout the process,” says McCann.

  • Use information as talking points during the interview. If you’ve discovered information that warrants further discussion, don’t be afraid to bring it up during the interview, whether it’s good or bad. Ask the candidate to share more about their involvement in a particular project, or explain how they created some of the work in their online portfolio. This is a great way to engage with a candidate beyond what’s shared on their resume. If there’s a discrepancy between what’s presented on their hiring materials and what you’ve found online, simply ask about it in a non-accusatorial way, giving the candidate an opportunity to explain.

  • Test the candidate’s honesty. Amy Edwards with Bubble Jobs makes it clear to candidates at the interview stage that she’ll be doing online research, and always asks candidates up front if she’s going to find anything questionable in her search. Edwards has found that this practice is often a good test of their honesty, and may reveal information that is not as easily found. Additionally, says Edwards, this gives candidates the opportunity to be forthcoming about past transgressions.
Photo of Joseph Torrillo
About the Author

Born and proudly raised in Syracuse, NY, Joseph joined the team in 2008 as the Director of Reputation Management after earning his B.S. in Public Policy. He is now the Vice President of the department.

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