In a world with so much information online, it is only natural for employers to use such resources to their advantage. While a standard criminal background check is a good investment to shed light on a potential employee, an applicant’s social media activity can also provide a glimpse into their recent activities.

A social media search appeals to companies concerned with mitigating legal risk. But there are lines that should not be crossed when conducting such a background check.

Here’s a few best practices when searching social media.

Never “friend” the applicant. This can be considered a violation of privacy. Instead of sending an invitation to connect with the potential employee, use the information you could find publicly.

Use only public information. Relying on information that is accessible to all is the only fair way to vet a candidate online. Much like in an interview, the public information is what the candidate has chosen to share and pushing further could lead to legal issues.

Do not request a username and password. This is an invasion of privacy and is considered illegal. Outlined in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Department of Justice indicates that violation of the terms of service of a website can be considered a federal crime. Some platforms, such as Facebook, regard any user request for another user’s login information to be a violation.

Know your state’s laws. Certain states have additional restrictions beyond the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, so verifying what you can and cannot search for is crucial to avoiding legal action. Legislation for increased social media privacy has been introduced in at least 28 states, with laws being enacted in Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Do not pick and choose platforms. Each potential employee should be vetted equally in every stage of the hiring process, social media included. Specifically select the platforms you will be searching and use only those when researching candidates.

Focus on information relevant to the job. While you might find out a lot of personal information about the candidate, you should only judge that which pertains to the position. A candidate’s religious or political beliefs, for example, cannot be considered in the hiring process.

Do not hide the search. A potential employee has the legal right to know that you are researching their personal life and to verify that you are searching the correct profiles. If your candidate has a common name and has chosen not to share a picture, you could end up investigating the wrong Jane Doe.

Allow the candidate to explain any details that may affect employment. Social media platforms are not infallible; profiles can be hacked, users can be tagged in photos without their consent, friends can post comments without permission, and false pages can be created that impersonate a user. Allow the candidate to explain any salacious findings rather than immediately eliminating them from consideration.

Do not look too early. The search should only be performed after the initial interview, as you would not have legal cause to look up the candidate until after that time.

Document your reasons. If you choose not to hire a candidate based on the social media search, it is best to document the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the hiring decision in as much detail as possible. Taking screenshots of the issues and describing what you found is recommended, in case the evidence is removed or the candidate claims it is for another reason.

Do not get too close. While it might seem easier for the hiring manager to do the social media searches, this can color favor in specific directions. It is best for the research to be conducted by a third party and then given to the hiring manager to include in decisions.

Hire a reputable company. One way to ensure unbiased searching is to hire a background screening company. Not only will the company present fair and unbiased data, but it can ensure that the social media check is FCRA-compliant and completely legal. Also, these businesses can remove any personal information that should not be included in the decision-making process.

Should you have questions about Social Media background checks, please do not hesitate to contact GroupOne.