Looking for Trouble

Two recent studies bring to light the dangers of screening social-media accounts, including alienating job candidates who don't get the job -- and even those who do.

Thursday, December 19, 2013
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Employers looking to create a better candidate experience for job seekers might want to start by revisiting their approach to social media.

In recent years, sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have emerged as vital tools for finding the right talent, with Jobvite's 2013 Social Media Survey revealing that roughly 94 percent of employers are either using or are planning to use social media for recruiting purposes. But now, two new studies provide further evidence as to why employers might want to tread carefully. at North Carolina State University recently found that employers run the risk of alienating job applicants when they screen their social-media accounts, thereby making it harder for them to attract top candidates. In addition, the researchers report that such efforts increase the likelihood job candidates might take legal action against employers.

These findings are published in an article titled "Examining Applicant Reactions to the Use of Social Networking Websites in Pre-Employment Screening," appearing in the December 2013 edition of Journal of Business and Psychology.

In the first study, 175 psychology students who applied for jobs online were informed that their Facebook accounts were reviewed for professionalism and that a decision on their application was forthcoming.  When those applicants -- with a mean age of around 19 -- were later asked to share their reaction, two-thirds said they found the prospective employer less attractive.

A second study involved asking 208 U.S. adults with a mean age of around 36 to envision a hypothetical scenario in which a prospective employer reviewed their Facebook profiles for professionalism, with half being asked how they'd respond if they were hired and half being asked how they'd respond if they were not hired.

In both instances, roughly 60 percent of the participants reported having a negative view of the employer.

In addition, 59 percent of the participants in the second study indicated they were more likely than an unscreened control group to take legal action against the employer.

Will Stoughton, a Ph.D student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., and the lead researcher for the project, says he was surprised by the findings in several ways.

Because the participants in the first study grew up with social media, Stoughton says, researchers and HR practitioners might assume they would not react negatively to the use of social media for pre-employment screening -- but as the findings here demonstrate, that wasn't the case.

"On the whole," he says, "students that were screened felt their privacy had been violated and two-thirds of them viewed the organization as a less attractive place to work because of the perceived privacy violation."

As for the second study, Stoughton says he was surprised to learn that the hiring decision did not affect the reactions of the study participants.

"There is a fair amount of research that demonstrates applicants view favorably selection procedures that result in positive outcomes, such as a job offer," he says. "Yet the effect of the privacy invasion was such that participants viewed the use of social media in screening to be unjust even when they receive an employment offer."

Stoughton adds that he also didn't expect such a high percentage of study participants who indicated they would be inclined to take legal action as a result of social-media screening. "If even just a few applicants pursued legal action against a company . . . it could tie up significant company resources and sour future applicants."

Together, Stoughton says, the two studies suggest that employers should carefully weigh the perceived benefits of social-media screening against the increased likelihood of alienating potential employees.

"The recruiting and selection process is often applicants' first indication of how they may be treated on the job," he says. "If applicants believe their privacy has been violated, they are more likely to avoid the employer."

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Dan Schawbel, a New York-based expert on Gen Y and author of Promote Yourself: The New Rule for Career Success, agrees employers could pay a price for accessing the private profiles of applicants, particularly on sites such as Facebook that are primarily used for connecting family and friends rather than co-workers. "When employers do this," he says, "it makes applicants trust them less."

Nor does the damage end there, he adds. "Research shows that, if they don't have a positive experience, they will likely tell their friends and apply for positions at competitors."

Schawbel believes the key takeaway here for employers is to stay away from trying to uncover private data and only use public data.

Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio and author of The Social Media Handbook, agrees employers walk a fine line when it comes to monitoring prospects' social sites.

"On the one hand," Flynn says, "content posted on the public web is just that -- public, meaning anyone can read it.

"On the other hand, you don't want to risk a discrimination claim if you reject a prospect on the basis of content you find on the prospect's social sites."

Flynn adds that you also run the risk of turning off otherwise desirable candidates who are offended by your "peaking" at their sites.

"Until privacy law catches up to social-media technology, and clear guidelines are spelled out by the courts vis-à-vis the employer's right to look versus the candidate's right to privacy, then I suggest HR pros tread gently," Flynn says. "Look at prospects' sites as part of your evaluation process, but do so with discrimination law in mind. Don't do anything that could trigger a discrimination claim."

Flynn notes that HR executives also need to be mindful of the fact that prospective employees, particularly younger ones, tend to have unrealistic expectations of privacy that may not be in sync with the law or organizational policy and procedures. "You can train your current employees about the company's monitoring rights versus employees' privacy expectations," she says, "but you are unlikely to get the chance to educate prospective employees about monitoring and privacy."

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