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July 10, 2021


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You have shortlisted two candidates for the job. You’ve done your CV checks, employment reference checks, police checks and verification checks. Both candidates tick all your boxes. So you take a deep dive online and check the LinkedIn, FaceBook and Twitter profiles for red flags or green flags.

Sounds familiar?

It certainly is, as 90% of employers use social media to screen candidates during the hiring process, and 79% have rejected a candidate because of their social media activity.

With social distancing as the new normal, many recruiters find social media attractive as a ‘readily available source of real-time data to find and vet candidates’.

The social media technology per se is not cutting edge, but the digital profile may give one candidate the competitive edge over the other. We may endeavour to create healthy boundaries between our professional life and private life. But the more we share our personal details on social media platforms, the more they enter the public domain, sometimes permanently.

The COVID-19 restrictions have led many to resort to social media in desperation as the virtual next best thing – reaching out, venting, haemorrhaging. But abnormal behaviours under abnormal pressure may be (mis)construed as a window into the authentic character of a person, especially during the hiring process.

Globally, the practice of social media background checks and internet surveillance is coined Cyber-vetting.

So what exactly are red flags that recruiters are seeking when they check the candidate’s likes, replies, comments, reposts and images?

To ensure that the candidate is a good ‘fit’ in the work culture, a recruiter looks out for toxic, illegal or discriminatory behaviour that may risk jeopardising the employer’s brand name.

In order of prevalence, the following ‘red flags’ convince employers not to hire a candidate:
inappropriate, explicit, nude and violent images;
narcotics and alcohol;
bullying, insults, harassment, name-calling, hate speech and threats of violence;
discriminatory comments related to race, gender, sexual orientation or religion;
criminal behaviour;
obscene language, profanity and vulgarity;
extreme political speech;
lying about qualifications;
poor communication skills;
indications of intentional self-harm;
bad-mouthing a previous employer;
unprofessional screen name;
shared confidential information from previous employer;
lying about an absence;
posting frequently on social media.

The last category may indeed flag a tendency to share images on platforms such as Instagram while at work.

But there is a disconnect between employee perceptions and employer practices. More than half of the employers who use social media screening admit that they have decided not to hire someone because of what they have found online. Yet only 2% of social media users think that their social media posts have caused them to get fired or not be hired.

Ironically, 58% of employers conduct social screenings to look for reasons to hire, while only 24% were searching for reasons not to hire someone.

In order of prevalence, the following ‘green flags’ convinced employers to hire a candidate:
information supporting candidate’s job qualifications;
professional image;
wide range of interests;
good fit within the company culture;
great communication skills;
awards and accolades;
great references;
large number of social media followers.

The growth in social media screening is driven by growth in both demand and supply.

Employers increasingly seek more than words on a resume to humanise a candidate, while employees increasingly publish information about themselves online. The rise of ‘digital natives’ who are ‘obsessed’ with social media is verified by 3.78 billion social media users worldwide in 2021, across a variety of platforms. This provides a rich pool of data for employers to mine and complement traditional candidate screening.

The advantages of cyber-vetting and preventing a mis-fit candidate are numerous. This ‘due diligence’ into the real character can reveal information that is typically tougher to uncover through traditional hiring processes.

Legislation has not caught up with this cyber-vetting trend. The line between professional and personal social networking activities has blurred as has the right to off-duty privacy. Employers need to be cautious about many risks with this practice.

After providing consent to conduct a social media screening, an unsuccessful candidate may later claim that they were not hired on the basis of protected characteristics such as their age, race, religion and medical history. To prevent discrimination claims, the employer needs to develop a blanket policy and practice to check everyone, or no one, when hiring. Under no circumstances should an employer ask for job candidate’s social media passwords.

While there are risks in social media screening, there are greater risks to the company’s reputation in not doing it.

Once the employer gains authorisation to conduct social media screening, the candidate may hastily remove any incriminating posts. If this process weeds out someone who does not care enough to clear it up, then it reveals the candidate’s character and has served its purpose.

To minimise risk to the employer, social media screening should be conducted late in the recruitment process, after a candidate has been short-listed. Roles that are prominent, public-facing or working with vulnerable populations may require more scrutiny than other roles.

Like criminal background screening, the ultimate goal of cyber-vetting is neither the ‘gotcha’ moment nor to disqualify candidates.

The authorised flagging paths the way for candid conversations about the candidate’s human character and the employer’s human workplace. When the employer is proactively the first to know, the candidate is more likely to be shielded from unauthorised social media ‘stalking’ by fellow employees. Due diligence is done and nasty surprises are mitigated.



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