How Social Media Posts Can Bias Hiring Decisions
Updated: Aug 24
Back in 2013, I was contacted by a journalist (who’s now editor) for Fast Company about my thoughts regarding how U.S. firms are searching social networks for job applicants’ information. And while it’s been nearly 9 years since her article (link below in Reference section) was published, I feel that everything I shared with her then still applies (and perhaps is even more relevant) today.
I am reposting my response to her questions in its entirety below in a “Question and Answer” or “Q & A” format.
Question: I’m wondering if you would be willing to comment from a recruiter’s perspective on this new study from Carnegie Mellon that found between 10% and a third of U.S. firms searched social networks for job applicants’ information early in the hiring process.
Answer: I have heard about that Carnegie Mellon University study in which responses from U.S. employers suggested that a minority of organizations searched for job candidates’ information online. If you take into account the number of companies and recruiters searching online social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) for potential hires, the findings of that study should not come as a surprise.
Question: Do you think that social media gives a hiring manager an “unfair advantage” because profiles can contain everything from religious affiliation to sport team loyalties? What about photos?
Answer: Some might say that social media gives firms, recruiters, and hiring managers an unfair advantage because they can learn so much about a candidate before he or she ever steps foot inside the interview room. However, the reality is that we willingly post a great amount of information about who we are — from the headshot photos to our selfies, and from our professional advice to comments about how terrible we felt when our favorite sports team lost. We put ourselves on full display and share many things that, taken together, reveal our beliefs, tastes, and even personalities.
While some might argue that using this data about a prospective employee is unfair, others might argue that the information was posted online voluntarily for others to see. Perhaps the best advice I can share is this: We need to remember everything we post online can be viewed by millions of people and is often permanent. It is a good idea to sit back and really think before you post anything online.
Question: Should hiring managers simply resist the urge to look at candidate’s social media profiles before they’ve been interviewed? Is this any different than having an applicant walk in the door and judging them based on their appearance?
Answer: Should hiring managers resist looking at a potential job candidate’s social media profiles and activities prior to the actual interview? A criminal background check and conversations with the candidates’ previous employers are standard practices but some organizations may want to further examine job candidates and using social media sites can help the employer identify candidate qualities that match what the firms are seeking. It can also benefit the job applicant by helping him or her stand out from the crowd. For instance, a professional profile on LinkedIn can let employers know not only about your employment background, but also your interests, volunteer experiences, and recommendations from work colleagues. You can even share your work portfolio (e.g., presentations, documents, etc.). I contend that grouping all social media sites together into one group is misleading because there are “social” networks, like Facebook, where people share personal information about themselves to friends and families, and there are “professional” networks, like LinkedIn, where you connect with industry experts and other professionals and exchange career and professional advice.
One challenge that I see is the difficulties people have of separating their personal and professional social media presence. Some people keep them separate, while others blend the two. The problem is that hiring managers might not be able to tell the difference between job candidates’ personal and professional lives. For example, hiring managers may struggle with how to reconcile conflicting social media profiles, such as when an individual posts unflattering, crude, or even offensive things about themselves or someone else on their “personal” social media account (e.g. Facebook) in contrast to their more professional and polished presence on their “professional” social media profile (e.g., LinkedIn).
I think it isn’t as simple as employers looking at social media activities online because they do not always get the complete picture about a person. Obviously, job candidates would prefer that hiring managers look at their professional profiles on LinkedIn much more than their social profiles on Facebook. I also believe that it isn’t fair to judge a potential job candidate based purely on his or her social media profiles and activities. What’s more, while it can be tempting for hiring managers to look at job candidates’ social media profiles before being interviewed, I think it may cause what’s called confirmation bias, which is our tendency to prefer information that confirms our beliefs and expectations about people or things, while ignoring information that contradicts them. Of course, in reality, hiring managers can do this without ever using social media. Indeed, it may not be very different than having a prospective candidate walk in for a face-to-face interview and judging that applicant based on his or her appearance.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Dishman, L. (2013, December 13). The Surprising Ways Social Media Posts Bias Hiring Managers | Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/3023263/the-surprising-ways-social-media-posts-bias-hiring-managers