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Employers Snoop Social Media Profiles. Here's Why They Shouldn't.

Jul 28, 2017
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 SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Even as our social media identities become more tightly interwoven in many aspects of our lives, should our postings and profiles be off-limits when it comes to our job searches?

Human resources industry experts in the United States are recommending that companies exercise caution in scrutinizing the social media accounts of their job applicants, whereas in the European Union, regulators are recommending that companies ban the practice altogether.

Employers who use Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to screen job candidates run several risks, including overlooking potentially strong applicants or unwittingly succumbing to bias, says Cynthia Kay Stevens, associate dean of undergraduate studies, and an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

For one, social media profiles almost always include user photos, which can reveal clues to the candidate's age, race, weight and level of attractiveness – factors that are often obscured in a resume. 

Social media postings can also divulge other details that aren't within the resume's traditional purview, but that could bias a potential employer: political leanings, religious associations, sexual orientation and parental status, for example.

But it's not just what's on social media that can trigger bias, Stevens cautions. It's also what's not there.

"We know that social media use is not uniform across gender, across racial groups, and across different ages," Stevens says. Members of some demographic groups that are protected from employment discrimination under federal law tend to be less-frequent users of social media, she adds. Moreover, people who work for defense contractors or in national security may be prohibited from participating in social media. 

Seventy percent of employers said they use social media to screen job candidates, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey.

Presented with some candidates whose carefully curated social media personas portray them as affable, outgoing and well-liked, and others who lack any social media presence, a hiring manager might subconsciously favor social-network candidates, Stevens says. And that could prevent them from hiring qualified candidates from certain protected classes  – for example, people over the age of 40. 

The issue offers a fresh reminder of the fact that what's online can mislead. 

"Not everybody uses social media, and not everybody makes their social media information public," she says.

And that means hiring managers who use social media to screen applicants could end up with more information about some applicants and far less about others.

"In decision-making, we know that when you have different amounts of information about things you are trying to choose from, you tend to lean toward the thing you have more information about, without even recognizing that you don't have equivalent information," Stevens says.

Human resources professionals tend to be more attune to potential bias risks, and the topic of social media in evaluating job candidates has been a central one for several years, Stevens says.

"But if you are talking about a manager who doesn't necessarily have a lot of training in HR or doesn't understand those laws, you could end up using social media in a way that has discriminatory impact – not necessarily discriminatory intent," she says.

People are of course fallible and at times subject to strange biases.

"We all have these theories about why people behave the way they do, and we take as evidence things that we find in support of those theories, and sometimes those theories are kind of wacky," Stevens says.

Years ago, an MBA student described to her the experience of landing a summer job. In the interview, the student told Stevens, all the hiring manager wanted to know was whether she wore pantyhose in the summer. 

"I thought that was particularly bizarre," Stevens says. "But that hiring manager obviously had some theory in his head about women who do or do not wear pantyhose, and whether that will make them a good or a bad employee."

If that seems random, Stevens adds, biases often are.

"If you are going on social media to screen applicants, you should be aware that these kinds of subconscious theories can end up influencing your decisions," she says.

To students who seek her advice, Stevens suggests they take a close look at their social media accounts, clearing it of impressions that might repel a prospective employer.

To companies trying to figure out how to handle social media in hiring, she offers this reminder: "Social media sites give us a lot of information, but they doesn't give the full picture, and they do give us inconsistent information."

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

Robert H. Smith School of Business