It’s 2014, which means that Facebook will be 10 years old this February. Since the site launched it has become standard procedure for companies to screen job candidates based on their social media profiles. A recent study, however, suggests that the practice may actually drive away qualified applicants who feel that their privacy has been compromised.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that when job applicants realize an organization has viewed their social media profile, they are less likely to perceive the hiring process as fair, regardless of whether they are offered the position. The practice may have serious repercussions for the hiring organization’s reputation and make applicants more inclined to resort to litigation, says Will Stoughton, a doctoral student in industrial psychology and lead author of the paper. The study was published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. “There could be all kinds of negative consequences for creating a selection process that is perceived as invasive and unfair,” says Lori Thompson, a psychology professor at NC State and one of the paper’s co-authors. “When you think about the fact that top talent usually has a lot of choices as to where they want to go to work, it begins to really matter.”
Although job applicants would not necessarily know if their social media profiles had been screened, they do have several ways of finding out, Thompson says. For instance, an applicant might be tipped off after receiving a suspicious friend request or by talking with current employees and hiring managers who disclose the information — either accidentally or on purpose — in the course of the interview.
In 2013 almost half of all companies reported using social media profiles to make hiring decisions, according to a survey by the London-based Institute for Employment Studies. Although the practice is pervasive, social media screening is a relatively new phenomenon, and many companies lack clear guidelines about how and when it should be used — raising questions about whether the practice violates any anti-discrimination laws. “The legal landscape concerning the use of social media for screening is changing quickly,” Stoughton says. “Organizations that don’t have formal processes regarding the use of social media for selection may put themselves at risk of legal complaints because of inconsistent practices.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from making hiring decisions on the basis of certain protected characteristics, such as an applicant’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender or disability status. Those details are often present on an individual’s social media profile, however, giving managers access to information that would not necessarily be available to them otherwise. Profile screening could thus potentially color their judgment of the applicant — whether they realize it or not. For instance, in a 2009 study conducted for the site CareerBuilder, more than half of employers reported that the biggest factor influencing their decision not to hire an applicant was the presence of provocative photos on the candidate’s social media profile, an issue more likely to affect women than men.