Social Media Checks – How To Get Them Right

Ben Hart is the Co-Founder and Director of Social Media Check ( with over 15 years working as an accredited detective and senior investigating officer in roles that included major investigations utilising online searching and data interrogation. Given that online activity has become a key part of our behaviour, social media checks have become an integral part of the recruitment process.  

In this blog, he provides practical guidance on what is involved in conducting on line searches to help you make informed decisions on what you need to do as part of your interviewing process and in light of recent Department for Education Guidance.

The Department for Education’s guidance on Keeping Children Safe in Education 2022 states that:

In addition, as part of the shortlisting process schools and colleges should consider carrying out an online search as part of their due diligence on the shortlisted candidates. This may help identify any incidents or issues that have happened, and are publicly available online, which the school or college might want to explore with the applicant at interview.

When working with the police the way that we always approached legislation is that where guidance states something “should” be done, it was understood that this was an instruction to do this in all cases unless there was a specific or auditable reason not to do it. In cases where you did not follow the guidance then you had to be sure that there was a written and recorded explanation for not following the guidance. Therefore, in this case there is an expectation that social media checks will be carried out at the short-listing stage and the question is NOT WHETHER they will be done BUT HOW they should be done.

The guidance is quite vague and is lacking any specific information on what sort of material is in or out of scope, or what you should do with the material that you find. In terms of the process that we follow there are two ways that you can conduct checks:

Covert Checks: Research conducted without the knowledge or consent of the individual in question


Explicit Consent: Documented and informed consent given by an individual

There are some key things to consider when conducting Covert vs Explicit Consent checks:

Covert Checks

  • Your Digital Footprint: Do you have measures in place to ensure you do not leave a footprint behind online? Unless you are very skilled, the candidate will be able to detect that you have been looking at their on-line presence.
  • Establishing Identity: How will you establish the identity of the person online and with what certainty? You may be searching for the wrong person with the right name!
  • Access to Information: Can you access private material? Will you send friend requests to the individual if accounts are private? Should you even be looking at private material?
  • Time and Resource: How long will you spend reviewing and researching content for every candidate you check?
  • Openness and Transparency: If you do find information that is not appropriate how are you going to deal with this and inform the candidate of your findings, when they did not know you were conducting the search in the first place? Will this be accessible via a Subject Access Request?
  • Consistency: How will you ensure that all reviews are done consistently? How will you ensure that all findings are addressed consistently?
  • Existing Legislation: HR and recruitment legislation – consider protected characteristics
  • ICO Registration: If you are acting as a Data Processor, are you registered with the ICO? Is a Data Protection Impact Assessment for the work needed?
  • Corporate Insurance: When undertaking this activity are you covered for any liabilities, errors or otherwise during the processing?
  • Information Security: How do you manage, store, retain and destroy information gathered during this process in a secure, auditable and ICO  compliant manner?

Explicit research

The approach that we would recommend is that you should always conduct this with the individual’s consent and present this as a service that supports and helps the candidates. In addition, it is a process that offers benefits to protect both the individual and the candidate, is fully transparent and provides a decision framework for recruiters that can be audited and defended. Crucially it is a process that is done with the candidate rather than to them.

It is always best to inform candidates as soon as possible that you will be conducting the searches, what you will be looking at and to get their consent. This is generally done when you inform them that they are being invited to interview. In our experience we find that only 1 in 10,000 people do not give consent to searches.

What is in scope? What information should you be looking at?

All because information is on line, it does not necessarily mean that it should be looked into and examined. In terms of checks the following areas should be in scope:

  • Social Media Content
  • Search Engine Results

There is information that should not be considered in scope:

  • Peer to Peer Messaging
  • Private Messages
  • Non-Consented Content
  • Data Scraping

Make sure your processes are documented and auditable – Ofsted will want to see them

Since the DofE guidance was introduced in 2022, Ofsted is inspecting how the checks are done.  However you decide to undertake these checks you will need to have documented processes that are auditable and you should be able to demonstrate what you have done and the information that you have collected.

When developing processes for on line checks it is key to remember that this is something that should not take over- there should be a sense of balance. The checks should be:

  • Fit for purpose, accurate and represent value for money from a resource point of view
  • They should be accurate and consistent
  • The candidate should be clear on what areas of their on-line presence is being looked at
  • The person conducting the checks should have a sufficient level of training and understand what they are doing, what they are looking for and how it should be reported – however, this is particularly difficult currently given the lack of guidance and information on what the DfE is specifically expecting.

The Potential Task

In terms of on-line behaviours from the work we do at Social Media Checks we know that:

  • The average person has 2300+ social media posts created by them online.
  • If you allocated 30s review per post = 19.2 hours to review manually
  • Approx 78% of social accounts have a privacy setting applied
  • The average person uses two or more social media platforms with some regularity

If you conduct the searches in house, then you will potentially not be able to dedicate this amount of time and resource to each candidate which is why you must be clear on the parameters for your searches, specifying what you are searching and what you are looking for. In our business we would, for example, be looking for the following:

Swearing & Profanity

Adult Images

Hate Speech

Highly Negative Sentiment

Violent Images

Toxic Language

Banned & Extremist Groups

Bespoke Keywords

Key points to consider when you are evaluating the searches?

Finally, once you have the information and if you have found something that could be questionable (rather than completely illegal) you need to ensure that you have a response to how you would deal with the information. In formulating your response and policy you need to bear the following questions in mind to ensure that you are proportionate and balanced in how you deal with the issues:

  • How old was the person at the time of content creation?
  • How long ago was the content posted?
  • What was the intended audience?
  • Whether the post was public or private?
  • Will the content be edited/removed?
  • What can be learned within a new, professional setting?
  • How do current social media policies fit?
  • What is the impact of the post v the likelihood of being seen?

The good news is that we have scanned millions of images and the vast majority of areas that have been flagged have been minor relating to minor language issues, posts that have been made a long time ago (and have been long forgotten) or even memes with a slapstick content. In nearly all cases candidates are generally mortified to be reminded of historical posts that no longer relate to the person they are now. In addition, they are quick to rectify by moderating the content or removing them completely.

For further information you can contact Ben via email at Ben has also recently supported us with a webinar on this subject. If you would like to listen to this and find out more about Ben and the work of Social Media Check please follow this link.

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