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Background checks can be expensive for a nonprofit organization that relies heavily on donations for its funding. Even with the discounted rates that nonprofits are often entitled to, volunteer managers are pressed to find more cost effective solutions that won’t dip into their budget. With this in mind, many have turned towards social media or Google searches to solve this problem.
Why might this be considered effective? Social media continues to ingrain itself into both our personal and professional lives. We share terabytes worth of content with each other - some of it appropriate, some of it not. As we continue to put more of ourselves on the internet, our social profiles become more representative of our character. This fact is not lost on those involved in the volunteer screening process and many have already tapped social media as a free source of background screening information.
And then there’s Google.
A Google search on an individual can potentially bring up an abundance of different information. Most local news sources will publish arrest records and host information from their state’s Sex Offender Registry. However, there are some serious downfalls with both social media and Google searches that you as a volunteer manager should be aware of before implementing them as a screening tool.
Some things won’t show up
Looking at a Facebook profile won’t show you the whole picture of who a person is. Remember, the content on Facebook was published by the person you are screening. They are going to post content that paints the picture that they want people to see.
Are you worried about theft from your warehouse volunteers? You shouldn’t expect to find a theft record (or an esoteric reference to one) on a facebook profile - that’s only guaranteed to be found through a background check.
If you are hoping to find this information through a Google search, you are rolling the dice. Conducting a google search is far from extensive. You may or may not find a record if it exists. There is no guarantee. Are you going to dig past the first page of search results? How are you going to verify that the information is correct?
There are major problems with inaccuracy
The information that can be found through social media and Google searches can’t always be trusted - and for several reasons. Like any content on the internet, the accuracy of the information given can’t always be taken at face value.
Social Media - There are a few inherent issues with the content on social media. The first issue that volunteer screeners face is verifying that they are actually looking at the right person when they are going through a social media profile.
Have you met this person or are you inferring that you have the right person based on their name and location?
Consider someone with the name John Smith. There are thousands of people in the US with that same name. Even when narrowing the search to just local results, there will still be hundreds of people with that same name. Are you absolutely positive that you have the right person?
Secondly, when you look at someone’s content from social media from a third person perspective, you lack context. You run the risk of misconstruing the information in front of you when you don’t have personal knowledge of the volunteer that you are researching.
Think about how terribly sarcasm fails at communicating over email or text messages. It is especially true when you are communicating with someone who doesn’t know you or your sense of humor. The same rings true when you are interpreting social content from an outside perspective.
Google - A search for an individual through Google also has some of the same challenges as social media. You may find an arrest record for someone named John Smith in your area, but how do you know that it is the same John Smith that wants to volunteer for your organization?
News outlets don’t always include a great deal of information when posting arrest reports on their websites. You may only see a name and brief description of the offense. That isn’t enough information - on its own - to make a screening decision.
There is another highlighted issue with using Google as a way to research volunteer candidates. If there is a criminal record associated with your applicant, they can often be interpreted as guilty even after proven innocent. Arrest records that are posted on news outlets aren’t often updated when a case is dropped or expunged. While the applicant may have been found innocent of the charges, all that you will see is the arrest record that leads you to believe they committed the crime.
Inherent issues with discrimination
Discrimination is a serious issue with social media being used as a screening tool. When you scroll through an applicant’s social media profiles, you aren’t just getting access to relevant screening criteria. You are also gaining access to oodles of personal details that have no legal bearing on a hiring decision. Because of this, you open yourself up to discrimination claims when you look through social content.
Another common way that volunteer managers discriminate is when they have an inconsistent volunteer screening program that only applies to people that give them the “creepy vibe.” If your screening practice is to look up particular volunteers on the sex offender registry based on a gut feeling, you need to revisit your screening policy. Not only is that practice illegal, it is incredibly ineffective.
It’s not going to go over well with your volunteers
A recent research study at North Carolina State University found that job applicants who knew that they had their social media profiles checked as part of a screening process were less likely to view the organization positively or as fair - regardless of whether or not they got the position. If you are someone who worries about being able to source the number of volunteers you need for your organization's mission, then this may be a factor you want to consider.
What you should be doing instead
Criminal Record Search
It’s best to set a solid foundation for your organization's volunteer screening program by using a comprehensive criminal record search on each of your volunteers. A standard court record search will report the last 7 years of criminal history.
There are two basic types of criminal record checks available for volunteer screening - Live Research and Database Searches. There are pros and cons for both forms of investigation. You can read more on that subject in my previous blog post “The Difference Between Databases and Live Research.”
Sex Offender Registry Search
At a very bare minimum, your organization should be conducting sex offender registry searches. Especially if your volunteers will be working with vulnerable groups.
Did you know that not all sex offenders will show up in a criminal record search?
Sex Offender Registry Searches ensure that there are no gaps in your screening program. They can be conducted independently by accessing the state databases or by using a background screening agency.
A few important things to note if you decide to run your search independently - Don’t just search the Sex Offender Registry for the state where your organization resides. If your applicant has a record from another state, it will not be reported in your state’s registry. It may be more effective to conduct your sex offender registry search through a background screening agency because they are able access each registry simultaneously at a very low operating cost. This makes it much more cost effective than doing it yourself.