The Carolina Panthers of the National Football League are making shock-waves this season for their (so far) undefeated season. But a story on the team’s website is capturing our attention for an entirely different reason.

The post, “Scouts Honor: The Importance of Background Checks,” explains in great detail how the team uses players’ social media profiles and posts to screen young athletes to determine if they’re the right fit for the Panthers’ culture.

Here’s some of the fine print:

  • The team relies on traditional scouting methods to collect background information on potential draft picks
  • The Panthers use special software programs that track social media use by player prospects
  • The organization ‘red flags’ certain behavior that shows up on social media posts

The article goes on to say that, “Scouring the social-media accounts of prospects has become, in a way, almost as important or maybe even more important than grinding through all the game tape to make sure a kid can play.”

What’s the Big Deal?

Screening job applicants is nothing new. In fact, most companies do it. Many of those companies use social media to vet applicants. According to a recent survey from Careerbuilder, more employers are turning to social networking sites to find information on potential candidates. And, CareerBuilder reports, 51 percent of employers who research job candidates on social media say they’ve found content that led them to not hire the candidate, up from 43 percent last year and 34 percent in 2012.

But, screening applicants or athletes – in the case of the professional sports teams – is risky. Chances are, we’re all guilty of social media nosiness. On most levels, this is harmless fun fueled by envy or lust or curiosity. But if you’re a boss, hiring manager, recruiter or other such person in charge of talent acquisition, you could be in a for a world of hurt if you get busted using social media as a hiring filter (even if it’s not your primary source of collecting information).

Why? Most social media profiles include information that could be considered discriminatory if you use it in a hiring decision. What type of information are we talking?

• Race

• Color

• Gender

• National Origin

• Religion

• Disability

• Citizenship

• Pregnancy

• Age

Some states offer additional protection for:

• Sexual Orientation

• Weight

• Marital Status

We’re not saying the Panthers’ organization is doing anything wrong; they certainly have a legal team who has probably looked over its scouting and hiring procedures and eliminated any questionable activity. But if any local youth sports groups use this type of activity for screening or hiring purposes, you could be heading down a very slippery – and ultimately, costly – slope.

How to Social Screen the Right Way

Make sure you have a standardized hiring procedure – We covered some tips in a post on our sister site, Small Business Hiring Tips: Avoiding Discrimination. If you don’t feel like navigating over, here’s the gist:

  • Create or review a policy manual that clearly defines discrimination, discriminatory language, harassment and any state and federal laws that your employees need to know about. If you’ve taken actions as a business to implement more protections, outline them in the manual. You might also want to find a way to make sure your employees have actually read the manual (a quiz, a team building exercise, something).
  • Implement anti-discrimination training for anyone in management or anyone who is deemed a ‘decision-maker.’ Ideally, this training should be done in-house and completed before any promotions take root.
  • Consider hiring a specialized youth sports background screening company like us for your hiring needs so you won’t, and can’t be found to, be responsible if something negative turns up in a social media search.

Incorporate social media into your standardized hiring policy (including how websites will be searched) – You’ll want to define several things. A) Which websites you screen, B) How they will be searched (NO snooping beyond people’s privacy settings), C) What information the screener will keep track of. It’s also imperative you keep a digital trail of your screenings and findings just as you would a paper trail during the application and interview process. You must teach your hiring pros to NEVER allow information which be viewed as discriminatory to influence their decisions. They should also be more than familiar with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and its regulations. The guidelines provided by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development are top notch.

Recognize your reputation is at stake, too – Think it’s too hard to actually prove you crossed the line during your internet searches? In some cases that might be true, but even a hint of impropriety can ruin your entire youth sports organization.

Navigating the role of technology and how it affects hiring laws is confusing, ever-changing, and a minefield for mistakes. If you don’t have the budget of an NFL team, it’s better to err on the side of caution if you’re thinking about using social media to screen applicants or even athletes.

The best decision you can make is to call our team of background screening professionals who can walk you through best practices in these situations. Not only do we want you to keep your athletes safe, but we want to keep your organization afloat, too. Give us a ring at 1.877.319.5587.