Hiring a new employee — especially for a key role — can involve significant time and effort as the employer searches to find the candidate with the necessary education and skills who will also be a good fit for the organization. Résumés only offer insight into one aspect of a candidate, and while interviews can help to shed further light, even then sometimes hiring managers still feel like they do not know a candidate. Given this, some employers are choosing to utilize social media when making hiring decisions so as to get a better feel for the candidate.

A recent CareerBuilder study shows that 39 percent of employers access social media sites in the hiring process. This is up slightly from last year, but despite the prevalence of social media, the majority of employers still do not appear to use it in the hiring process. Of those that do use social media, 50 percent took a candidate out of the running after finding inappropriate or provocative pictures posted on the candidate’s profile. Sharing information about drinking or drug use eliminated 48 percent of candidates. Employers eliminated 30 percent when the social media account reviewed poor communication skills. However, not all social media accounts reveal negative information. Sometimes employers discovered information that resulted in a hiring decision (e.g., conveying a professional image, 57 percent; confirming professional qualifications, 49 percent).

Should you use social media when hiring?

If you do decide to make use of information you can glean from social media in making hiring decisions, tread carefully. Some states restrict an employer’s ability to ask for user IDs and passwords to access private social media accounts. Even if you are able to lawfully access an account, you may find that you learn information that you would not otherwise know about a candidate that the law prohibits you from taking into account when making hiring decisions. For example, you may learn a candidate’s religion or marital status. It is much easier to prove you did not rely on such information in denying the candidate when you did not know it in the first place. In addition, not everything you read on the Internet is true. There may be misleading or inaccurate information regarding a candidate in blogs or other social media sites.

Despite these risks, social media searches can be useful. They can confirm that you are accurate in your assessment of the candidate or provide helpful, positive insight into the candidate’s personality that was not conveyed in the résumé or during the interview. To alleviate some of the risks outlined above, some companies use a third party to conduct a social media search and ask that that third party only convey relevant and lawful information. (Make sure you comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act or other state background check laws, if applicable, should you choose this route.)

And for you job searchers out there — take a hard look at your social media account, whether it be public or private. Are you presenting an image a future employer would like? Consider using the “would my grandmother approve?” litmus test. If grandma would not like it, do not post it!