Thinking of using social media when checking references? Proceed with caution.

It’s illegal for an employer to ask about a job candidate’s religion, marital status or personal affiliations during an interview or when checking references.

But before making a job offer, many hiring managers want to get a sense of a candidate’s personality and professionalism. Is turning to social media an acceptable option? After all, according to a 2015 study by JobVite, 92 percent of recruiters use social media to help find and hire candidates. With social media playing such a high-profile role in recruiting, some might say it’s just common sense to use it when checking references.

Maybe so, but only if you follow certain protocols that help you avoid delicate legal territory.

Check out these mistakes to avoid when recruiting on social media.

Privacy concerns to consider when checking references

Your company’s review of online information can raise privacy concerns. The same legal constraints that govern interviewing apply to checking references. You may be able to read about various aspects of candidates quickly by reviewing social networking sites, but much of it could be inaccurate or irrelevant. And what you find on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites can include information that is illegal for you to consider during the hiring process.

Think twice before using the information you discover about a candidate when making a hiring decision. Research published by the Social Science Research Network in 2015 suggests that some employers do exhibit bias based on their social media findings, which can create serious problems for everyone involved.

Sensitive information requires a sensitive approach

Following the trail of a candidate’s digital footprint can lead to some unexpected places, and once you see something, it can be difficult to make decisions without considering it. That’s why the Society for Human Resource Management advises accessing social media profiles after a candidate has been interviewed, “when his or her membership in protected groups is likely already known.” That way you can focus on facts that may help you assess the work quality and professionalism of candidates, while any sensitive information you see won’t be how you learned of it.

Transparency in the hiring process can also help avert problems. Let candidates know that checking social media sites may be part of your approach to checking references. Assure that if you do check, you’ll only search for job-related information. If you let candidates know your intentions at the beginning of the interview, chances are they won’t try to hide relevant information during the talk.

The bottom line: View checking references online as a complement to, not a substitute for, traditional methods. The impressions and information you receive from face-to-face interviews and over-the-phone conversations are still the best guides for making a hiring determination.

This post has been updated to reflect more current information.

Learn more about the pros and cons of pre-employment screening.