That resume for the sales position looked great, at least until you checked Facebook. Your applicant apparently overindulges in alcohol, hasn’t married his pregnant girlfriend, has a creepy tat, voted for Bernie, posts a lot of Bob Marley memes… and is a Patriots fan?

So you decided not to call him in for an interview. You’re probably patting yourself on the back for being resourceful, but you shouldn’t. If you haven’t violated the letter of the law, you’ve definitely crossed the line when it came to its spirit. The simple fact is that performing social media checks of prospective (and current) employees is a bad idea that could potentially land you in big trouble.

"Wait," you protest. “Everyone does it! When I was in college, they told me to keep my MySpace page clean for just that reason.” It’s true that many employers look at social media, but they shouldn’t. Our team performs remarkably thorough background checks, and you won’t find us taking a peek at someone’s tweets or posts. Why?

If your job includes hiring and interviewing responsibilities, odds are good that your HR director has given you guidance about questions you’re not supposed to ask during a job interview. For example, you can’t ask about the applicant’s age, marital status, race or ethnicity, sexual preference, disabilities, children, religious beliefs, political affiliations… the list goes on and on. You’re smart enough not to touch those topics during an interview.

In a 60-second glance at an applicant’s Facebook page, you can learn all those things and more. You can discover all sorts of things that a prospective employer has no legal right to know. And if you reject an applicant for one of those factors, and he or she learns about it, there’s a good chance that you’ll face an expensive lawsuit that you’re probably going to lose.

In addition, you may be doing business in one of the 21 states that has enacted restrictions related to employers accessing and using social media content. Beyond specific legal issues, using social media for background checks presents a lengthy list of ethical quandaries and shortcomings. For one, you’re probably violating the applicant’s expectation of privacy. An even bigger ethical issue is whether you can legally verify that the person who posted what you saw as inappropriate is actually the same person who applied for the job.

Even if the poster and the person are one in the same, is the site you’re viewing legitimate, or is it a decoy designed to lull you into a false sense of safety? A few years ago, Facebook was populated primarily by teens and college students who posted without worry of discovery. Once their parents started to sign up, many of those students quickly sanitized their profiles. Others set up two profiles — the public one for parental consumption, and a secret one that lets them be themselves.

Guess who does the same thing? Child molesters and other criminals. After reviewing an applicant’s public site, you might conclude that she’s obviously squeaky-clean, so you stop checking. She fooled you, just like the teenager down the street is fooling his folks.

So using social media as a background check strategy can create exposures in two ways. It can deliver more information than what you’re legally allowed to see, and it can provide inadequate information that can lead you to make poor decisions.

Professional background screening companies like ours use a broad variety of strategies to keep the “bad guys” away from our clients and the vulnerable populations they serve. One thing we don’t use is social media screening. For one thing, we understand and obey the law. But even more important, we know that social media is an inherently unreliable screening tool that creates far more problems than insight.

Convinced that I’m wrong and social media screening makes sense? Then take some steps to protect yourself. For starters, have another firm look through the information before you see it, so they can screen out anything you’re legally not allowed to consider. In addition, develop clear policies so that everyone involved in the hiring process knows how to proceed and what’s off-limits.

But my best advice is what I tell every client that asks about social media screening: just don’t do it. Make sure your managers don’t do it either. There are much more effective ways to screen applicants, and they won’t land you in hot water.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions 

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