Screening potential job applicants using their Facebook posts sounds like a good way to weed out irresponsible slackers. But drunken or stoned pictures may not tell the whole story.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, and party pics posted on Facebook speak volumes for employers sifting through job applicants, right? Maybe not. While recent concerns about employers plumbing social media for information about both current and potential employees have led many users to adjust their privacy settings and posting habits, a new study found that college students who posted images of themselves enjoying a drink or two, or even using drugs were just as responsible and hard-working as those who did not advertise their partying.
“People high in conscientiousness were just as likely to post about chugging beer or doing drugs as someone who was low in conscientiousness,” says the study’s lead author William Stoughton, a doctoral candidate at North Carolina State University.
Those who posted drinking and drug images were also more likely to be extraverted than people who didn’t— another trait that many employers find appealing, since it involves being sociable, friendly and enthusiastic, all useful for occupations that require interacting with others.
So by screening out candidates who show drinking and drug use on social media, “You might be throwing out the very people you want,” says another of the study’s co-authors Lori Foster Thompson, professor of psychology at North Carolina State. The research involved 175 Facebook-using college students who had participated in a pilot study then applied for a temporary, paid research assistant job. To assess their personality traits, they answered a standardized questionnaire to measure features such as extraversion, responsibility, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Two weeks after applying for the job, they were surveyed confidentially online by the researchers about the content that they typically posted on their Facebook pages. The study will be published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.
While the Facebook posts were not so helpful in sussing out the less conscientious and irresponsible, they were useful in determining which applicants were more likely to be unpleasant to work with, the study found. People who made negative comments about professors and fellow students on Facebook were, not surprisingly, less polite, less good natured and less flexible in responding to situations requiring cooperation in the non-online realm. “People low in agreeableness were more likely to badmouth others,” says Stoughton.
Adjusting privacy settings to block unknown users from accessing personal social media information is certainly one way to keep employers from viewing personal material. But another study that will be published in the journal IEEE Privacy and Security involving 545 college students found differences in how certain populations took advantage of these options. White students were far more likely to manage their social media privacy settings to avoid scrutiny by potential employers than were blacks, Asians or Hispanics. While only 21% of whites had never changed their privacy settings to hide potentially embarrassing content, 34% of Asians and African Americans never did so and 35% of Hispanics left their settings alone. The findings suggest that minorities — who tend to use alcohol and other drugs at roughly the same rates as whites — may be at especially high risk for being screened out if they post partying images.
“The fact that minorities are less likely to consider an employer audience when sharing content could result in more undesirable information publicly available about them,” says Eszter Hargittai, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and the study’s lead author. “The availability of such information could have additional negative consequences for their job prospects in addition to the discrimination they already face.”
Hargittai also found gender differences in privacy setting use; 75% of women changed their settings at least once in anticipation of employer searches, while only 65% of men did. “It is important to recognize that even young adults who grew up with digital media use it in different ways and vary in their level of Internet savvy with respect to privacy considerations,” she says.
“It’s quite likely that we can come up with valid information from Facebook posts, but it’s not always what our intuition or gut would tell us that [matters],” says Thompson, “That’s where it’s really important to throw science at it and provide good data driven guidance.” Such research can help ensure that social media doesn’t jeopardize job applicants’ employment opportunities, by teasing apart how postings reflect on users, and whether those connections have any relevance to the workplace. Sometimes, seeing shouldn’t be believing.