How Social Media is Muddying the Waters for Job Seekers

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By CAREEREALISM-Approved Expert, Teena Rose

Invited to an interview, you step into the room and unload that heavy photo album you’ve been clinging to onto the conference table. In addition to a resume and brag book, you have pictures on your iPhone of your dogs and the neighbor’s cat stalking the birds enjoying your new bird feeder.

The interview progresses by you opening and flipping through the pages of your album, pointing to your family and friends. You gladly draw the interviewer’s attention to those older pictures taken during your college days…and to the many of your drunk, sleeping positions your friends encapsulated forever through one click of a camera.

Eeerrrk!!!

What? Personal items presented during an interview?

Why not? Isn’t that basically what hiring companies are doing rummaging through your public social media accounts, learning more about you and your online activities?

The next few years are certainly gray, uncharted waters for job seekers. The issue of whether a person’s personal life and involvement online should have any place in the hiring realm is definitely a topic that will be battled over for years — maybe even decades. Some might unexpectedly find themselves entangled in lawsuits, as privacy experts grow increasingly concerned disqualifying a candidate based on information gained online can introduce certain forms of discrimination into the hiring process.

Job seekers have every right to be concerned about protecting their online identities from prying eyes, but where should the line be drawn? Employers shouldn’t be given uninhibited access to a job seeker’s private life, should they?

Interestingly, a recent study released at Microsoft’s 4th Annual Data Privacy Day identified 70% of those surveyed in the U.S. indicated they had disqualified a candidate based on online information. What was the incriminating online information that caused the disqualification? Of course this was not made public…and behind the curtain of hiring, only HR managers and recruiters seem privy to such information.

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The deeper issue is whether employers should be allowed to open that flood gate by bringing social media activities into the hiring world in the first place. Social media is muddying the waters in the job application and interview processes.

I’m reminded of a line from the movie Jurassic Park. When referring to scientists, Jeff Goldblum’s character says, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Maybe employers poking through a job seeker’s online activities are so preoccupied with the fact they could, they never stopped to think whether they should.

Ahh, but hiring companies won’t find my online activities. Think again. Technology giants have only just begun leveraging the social media phenomena; and not surprisingly, for financial gain.

Microsoft announced the integration of Social Connector software, which will be released mid-2010. The add-on software is designed to let someone like me readily see the online communications from those who send me e-mail. Microsoft’s Group Product Manager, Dev Balasubramanian, was quoted as saying: “As you communicate you can see their social activities; you can see all the folks in your social network and it updates as you are reading your e-mail.” Certainly it appears to offer great benefits to the masses, but for job seekers, it just might leave an unpleasant sour aftertaste.

No doubt, employers will soon be given a larger spy glass — and unfortunate for job seekers, Microsoft isn’t the only company abuzz with developing new applications that will take public social media data and translate it into something that can be researched and used, for good and evil.

Regardless, employers need to take a long look at their current hiring practices to determine whether a drunken party photo showing Joe Job Seeker has anything to do with the value Joe brings to the table professionally, and how well he performs while on the job.

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CAREEREALISM Badge [Articles]Teena Rose is a Personal Branding Strategist, Career Coach, and Professional 10-Year Resume Writer with ResumeToReferral.com. She is highly endorsed and recommended, making her your best choice for job-search and career success. She has been helping professionals grow, excel, and succeed since 1999. Contact Teena by her website Resume to Referral, follow her on Twitter, and check out her LinkedIn page.

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14 comments

  1. I completely agree with this article. However, there is a line that the individual should draw when using social networking applications. They should always act online as though their grandparents might one day see their activities online. It is personal branding that should be done at all ages. Something parents should be talking about with their children and friends talking about with their friends. It is similar to having a felony, DUI or anything else like that on your record. It follows you for the rest of your life. Actively managing your reputation at all times is the name of the game. The blame shouldn't wholeheartedly be placed on the potential employer in this scenario. The individual should also assume some measure of responsibility for their actions as well. If their friends respect them, they won't post indecent pictures of them online as well.

    I suggest that acknowledgment by the individual candidate for a position should be acquired before the potential employer is allowed to snoop around that person's online social profiles so that at the very least there is some measure of informed consent to the snooping. It is similar to signing a waiver that acknowledges that there will be a drug test if a position is offered. This tactic would help to mitigate the breach of online public/privacy surrounding this debate.

  2. I think people are overreacting here. If you think you have something that will disqualify you (e.g. blatantly drunk pictures, belligerent messages, and the like) then don't put it online. If you put something online and do not put it on lockdown, expect that it is public information and people will look at it and it mat affect you – both positive and negative.

    Also – if a company disqualifies you for something you feel like it's your right to do, then it's probably not a good fit. The guy who got fired from Best Buy for making fun of Apple fanboys in a video made Best Buy look stupid and he probably has more talent than Best Buy can use.

    For as many examples of negative outcomes after seeing what is online; there are also positive outcomes too. Checking out Facebook and finding a blog that is well written and sometimes even topical to the job they'd be doing is a positive.

    The point is – don't be stupid about your online identity/brand. If a company cares about a 40 year old picture from college when you were passed out; do you really want to work there anyway? I'd say most companies would not care about 98% of the online identities.

  3. I completely agree with this article. However, there is a line that the individual should draw when using social networking applications. They should always act online as though their grandparents might one day see their activities online. It is personal branding that should be done at all ages. Something parents should be talking about with their children and friends talking about with their friends. It is similar to having a felony, DUI or anything else like that on your record. It follows you for the rest of your life. Actively managing your reputation at all times is the name of the game. The blame shouldn't wholeheartedly be placed on the potential employer in this scenario. The individual should also assume some measure of responsibility for their actions as well. If their friends respect them, they won't post indecent pictures of them online as well.

    I suggest that acknowledgment by the individual candidate for a position should be acquired before the potential employer is allowed to snoop around that person's online social profiles so that at the very least there is some measure of informed consent to the snooping. It is similar to signing a waiver that acknowledges that there will be a drug test if a position is offered. This tactic would help to mitigate the breach of online public/privacy surrounding this debate.

  4. I think people are overreacting here. If you think you have something that will disqualify you (e.g. blatantly drunk pictures, belligerent messages, and the like) then don't put it online. If you put something online and do not put it on lockdown, expect that it is public information and people will look at it and it mat affect you – both positive and negative.

    Also – if a company disqualifies you for something you feel like it's your right to do, then it's probably not a good fit. The guy who got fired from Best Buy for making fun of Apple fanboys in a video made Best Buy look stupid and he probably has more talent than Best Buy can use.

    For as many examples of negative outcomes after seeing what is online; there are also positive outcomes too. Checking out Facebook and finding a blog that is well written and sometimes even topical to the job they'd be doing is a positive.

    The point is – don't be stupid about your online identity/brand. If a company cares about a 40 year old picture from college when you were passed out; do you really want to work there anyway? I'd say most companies would not care about 98% of the online identities.

  5. I thought permission is already needed to do a background check. I think each time I filled out an application, it said if an offer was made then a background check would be performed and by signing I was consenting to it.

    So, the proposed laws may plug loopholes in informed-consent rules that might exist in a few states… but as you said, it won't change anything else about the hiring process. Nor is it intended to, I assume.

  6. Isnt anyone concerned here about right to privacy? Doesnt there still exist a right to do things in your private life that no employer — current or potential — needs to know about? How may of us have the drunk passed out college photos or perhaps more compromising ones than that that we wouldnt even want family members to see? What, if anything, does how I conduct myself in my private life have to do with my potential to do a job? Now there are obvious things an employer has a right to know:

    - If I get a company car, how is my driving record?
    - If i get a company credit card or will have access to company funds, how is my credit rating?
    - If I am going to be around children, am I a registered sex offender?

    These are all examples of actions in one's private life that could potentially put an employer at risk if they hire you and they have the right to know when there is a direct causal link.

    What if employers could hook up a device to our brains and dig deep for every embarrassing detail and every bad or inappropriate moment in our entire lives? What then? No one would ever be hired anywhere! It may be a leap to the absurd to make my point, but it's a very slippery slope when you start to snoop around a person's private life to make a judgment as to whether or not they would make a good employee for your company. What does an inappropriate posting or comment from my old college buddy on my facebook page have to do with my ability to manage my workload? Here's an idea: why dont you try talking to my former boss about how I managed to increase sales on my accounts by double-digit percentage increases year over year for the 5 years I was at the company instead of worrying about what “booger” from “Alpha Beta Xi” wrote about that hilarious photo of me at “little sister rush toga night” in 1994 on facebook?

  7. I was just discussing this the other day with someone actually. It's time for job seekers to re-vamp their social profiles. If they want a career that bad then they can take a few minutes to make their facebook pictures private and and not tweet about everything negative that' happened to them the last 12 hours.

  8. Great article! I'm a huge advocate of using technology to compliment and / or enhance our personal & professional lives and can hardly wait for the Outlook / Social Media integration to be fully realized and leveraged. From the side of the employer, I think incidences like “Domino's Pizza Youtube Video Lesson: Focus on Standards, and Pack Your own Lunch” found @ http://bit.ly/Dominoes_Pizza_Debacle reinforces why recruiters and hiring managers feel the need to do extensive online searches in an attempt to hire individuals who truly mirror the image of the company & possess the business acumen / judgement to protect brand integrity. I read that 93% of recruiters state they have used online social media platforms to find top talent and 72% of those recruiters plan to increase their use of these sites in the years to come. In an economy such as this where it truly is an employer's market & with their increased desire to only hire the best, I don't see this changing. If individuals view the Internet as a communication tool that consistently speaks to all the employers you have worked for, will ever work for or want to work for, I think the the inappropriate content postings would all but completely disappear. But at last glance, only 29% of companies in the Americas have a “formal policy regarding employee use of social networking sites” (http://bit.ly/Mashable_Article). Technology, and its reach, is moving faster than companies are and that's never a good thing. I think the best advice anyone could give is to remember your personal & professional brand IS only a mouse click away from being enhanced or tarnished. Guard it with your life!

    James E. Wright, PHR
    http://www.VisualCV.com/JamesWright

  9. “70% of those surveyed in the U.S. indicated they had disqualified a candidate based on online information. What was the incriminating online information that caused the disqualification? Of course this was not made public”

    Actually, yes, it was made public. It was in the survey itself (PDF link on the website: http://www.microsoft.com/privacy/dpd/research.aspx ). The top 5 kinds of online info leading to rejection in the US (it varies by country surveyed) are:
    1) concerns about the candidate's lifestyle
    2) inappropriate comments and text written by the candidate (my supposition: blog posts, blog comments, FB status updates, etc.)
    3) unsuitable photos, videos, and info (presumably those college drunk days photos?)
    4) inappropriate comments or text written by FRIENDS AND RELATIVES (!!)
    5) comments criticizing previous employers, co-workers or clients

    It goes on in the same vein — even concern about a candidate's financial condition is a factor. (Don't know about you, but I've had my credit checked in the job interviewing process before, and I am none too crazy about it, even with sterling credit.)

    All this, to me, is some scary stuff. I fear the “scare factor” gets white-washed a little for those of us who are older. I'm 40-something and when I hear about the whole compromising cell phone photo thing college students do, I must admit my eyes glaze over. I see it as a generational thing: “silly kids, don't they know better”.

    Ha! I'm at risk, too (based on the survey), and here's an example: last week, watching LOST on TV, I updated my FB status to say “LOST is such a mind f**k” (using the asterisks). Might some recruiter now give me the brush-off because I was using the (dumbed-down) F-bomb? Who knows? It's certainly possible, judging from the survey results: “inappropriate texts or comments”.

    Three other things of concern in the survey. First, although 70% of the recruiters/hiring mgrs say they've disqualified candidates based on online reputation, only 7% of consumers surveyed think their online reputation affects their job search. Talk about a disconnect!!

    Secondly, I've made the mistake when I hear these stories of assuming that the online sites are, say, Google, FB, LinkedIn, YouTube and the like. That's true, as far as it goes. But, according to the survey, HR and recruiters are also looking at virtual world sites (SecondLife, perhaps?), online gaming sites (why? what does that have to do with work?), and sites like Amazon and Ebay. (Again, how do those sites relate to work? So, are my book reviews being looked at for appropriateness?)

    Finally, this quote from the survey results (p. 20) summarizes it all: “Traditionally, recruiters have had clear restrictions on the types of information they can ask candidates….Now, recruiters can easily and anonymously collect information that they would not be permitted to ask in an interview, and the survey found that recruiters are doing just that.”

    Bone-chilling!
    I fear that articles of this ilk don't go far enough with respect to covering the depth and breadth of the online reputation search. It's not just about the stereotypical upload of photos or videos to Facebook or Youtube by the younger crowd. It's all of us still in the labor force, who have do anything of consequence online, even if it's not typically thought of as work-related.

  10. I think this law should include what social media is being used during the search, and what criteria are they looking at. Are they searching Facebook through my friends list, and discovering through 10 degrees of separation a guy had robbed a store when he was 14? While I'm all for protecting company interests and hiring candidates that will reflect well, I feel companies should have a clear policy on which information they're using and what they're not using. We don't want to go back to what it was 40+ years ago, when companies can ask anything and use anything in their interviewing processes, simply under the guise of “public information” and “social media”. It could make black-and-white legality turn murky grey if not watched carefully.

    • No doubt, this is a deep subject.

      I'm very active in social media … and like many, I have been somewhat marveled by the idea of how social media can be leveraged to further advance this pain-in-the-butt process we call job search. =] But some [jobseekers too], go too far and become unprofessional/inappropriate with their social media accounts … and hiring companies are all too willing to gobble it up.

      Certainly as tools are developed to “spy” on job candidates, more and more effectively, I'm starting to question the true meaning and sacrifices we make by using social media. Obviously, social media connects us quickly and effectively, but on the flip side, it can be used against us all too easily too.

      Companies are increasingly embracing transparency as part of their brands; but absolutely my increasing concern is that companies are *liking* this new found transparency from jobseekers all too much. Yowzer!

  11. executiveresumewriter

    Wow. Some great examples here, Teena. Laughed out loud at bringing the photo album to the interview. You are right. Today's employer has the advantage in comparison to 10 years ago. Job seekers need to be very careful about what they put on the internet… everyone should be careful, really.

    Good post!

    Erin

  12. I just heard on the radio yesterday that a bunch of states in the US are considering legislation that would require a company to request permission to do a background check on a candidate. I laughed at the uselessness of this kind of lawmaking. While it seems to serve the candidate in that they will be given the option to allow the hiring manager to run the check, the reality is when a candidate has a bad past, they'll say 'no' and promptly be removed from the hiring process. A hiring manager who feels a candidate has something to hide in the interview won't give them a second glance. And, as was pointed out above, they'll probably Google search the candidate to see what they can find anyways.

    Times have changed for job seekers – it is truly uncertain right now. So, until things change, I am a huge believer in assessing your online presence. The best defense is a good offense!

    Thanks for the wonderful info and research in this article Teena!

    • I thought permission is already needed to do a background check. I think each time I filled out an application, it said if an offer was made then a background check would be performed and by signing I was consenting to it.

      So, the proposed laws may plug loopholes in informed-consent rules that might exist in a few states… but as you said, it won't change anything else about the hiring process. Nor is it intended to, I assume.

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