Can I Use Social Media to Screen my Tenants?
It’s no secret people love social media. Posting, retweeting, and keeping up with friends and celebrities has become a part of the daily routine for many. In fact, 7 out of every 10 Americans use social media to connect with others, engage with news content, and share information. Social media has become a means of expression, and, as a result, online profiles and history reveal a lot about a person. With this in mind, many employers and universities have turned to social media as an additional means of screening to determine whether or not someone is a good fit. It’s not an illogical leap to think this same method could be applied to screening tenants. But is it that simple? Could denying a tenant access to a rental property based on their social media activity be grounds for a discrimination charge?
How are Employers Using Social Media?
According to a study conducted by CareerBuilder in 2017, 70% of employers use social networks to screen employees before hiring. When an employer chooses not to hire someone due to behavior online, it’s typically because of inappropriate comments and images. This includes use of drugs or alcohol, bad-mouthing a previous employer, and discriminatory or abusive language. However, while social media can certainly cost you your dream job, it can also help. More than 44% of employers cited the social media activity of a candidate as a positive reason for hiring them.
Can Landlords Use Social Media for Screening Too?
While social media usage has exploded in HR departments across the country, and while it’s application is just as useful if not more so in rental housing, it is used less prevalently by landlords. The reason for this tentativeness is of course the Fair Housing Act. It is critical that, as a landlord, you understand the law and do everything necessary to avoid fair housing discrimination when screening tenants. You do not want to be on the wrong side of a discrimination suit. But using social media appropriately and within the bounds of the law is possible and, when done correctly, extremely useful.
When screening tenants, don’t ever rely solely on social media. First, require an application, background check, and credit history for each of your prospective tenants. Establish a set of parameters for who you will accept and who you will deny and stick to them. Then, pair your social media investigation with what you’ve learned. It is imperative that, once you’ve checked a social site for one tenant, you need to apply that same standard to all tenants. If you use Instagram for John Doe, you can’t skip it and use just Twitter for Jane Smith. With that in mind, establish rules for yourself. Record your policy in a written document that could be consulted later.
Within your platform rules, add a list of the kinds of things you’re looking for: Facebook to see if they have any unmentioned pets or if the engage in any illegal behavior or LinkedIn to verify their employment. Document anything you find that you deem to be a red flag. Create a trail for yourself to justify your denial. Resist the temptation to dig deeply into the views posted by the tenant (particularly religious and political) and remember, once you’ve seen something, you can’t un-see it. Just because you don’t like the applicant’s opinion on something doesn’t mean you can deny them.
Understanding the Limits when Screening Tenants
The social media persona someone projects is often carefully curated. It’s a highlight reel, not real life. And many accounts are completely unverified. Users can change their name at will (remember iHob?), so just because you found a James Smith on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s the guy applying to your property. Take everything you see online with a grain of salt and only use a profile you can confirm is the person you’re looking for.
Most social networking sites offer privacy setting for users to control who can see their online posts and it is the responsibility of the individual to use these when needed. Therefore, any information not hidden by the user is public and is fair game for you as a landlord. That being said, you can’t require the tenant to give you access to their social media profiles as part of your application process.
Should you friend tenants to keep an eye on your property? Do they actually have a hidden puppy in your property? These things might be easy to figure out if you’re “friends” with your renter online, but resist the temptation to use social media as a tool to monitor your tenants. Again, you cannot compel your tenants to connect with you on social networks or to share private information. Best practices suggest giving your new tenant the benefit of the doubt until they prove they don’t deserve it. It’s best to keep relationship with your tenant strictly professional.
So Should You Use Social Media?
Yes and no. When it comes to screening your tenants with social media, great caution is required. Ensure you have a clear understanding of what you are hoping to gain by looking at a tenant’s profiles and keep your standards and expectations the same for every single tenant. As with anything in rental housing, social media can be a great benefit when used effectively, but it can get you in hot water if you don’t know what you’re doing.
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