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Screening Facebook alienates your best job candidates

"Elite job prospects likely steer clear of potential employers they don't trust."
It's a common practice for employers, from the very large to the very small, to screen the Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites of job prospects as part of the hiring process.

Research from North Carolina State University is clear that this practice is likely to backfire by alienating the very prospects you most want to staff your business. In some cases, social media screening even increases the likelihood that you could find yourself in court, defending yourself.

"The recruiting and selection process is your first indication of how you'll be treated by a prospective employer," says Will Stoughton, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the research. "If elite job prospects feel their privacy has been compromised, it puts the hiring company at a competitive disadvantage."

The results of two studies
In the first study, 175 participants who had applied for a job online were told that their Facebook accounts had been reviewed for "professionalism," and that a decision on whether they'd been hired was forthcoming.
  • Two-thirds reported finding the prospective employer less attractive because they felt the Facebook screening was an invasion of privacy that reflected poorly on the company.
In the second study, 208 participants were asked to envision a hypothetical scenario in which a prospective employer reviewed their Facebook profiles for professionalism. Half of the participants were asked how they'd respond if they had gotten the hypothetical job, while the other half were asked how they'd respond if they hadn't gotten the job.
  • 60 percent of participants in both groups reporting a negative view of the potential employer due to a sense of having their privacy violated.
  • 59 percent of participants were significantly more likely to take legal action against the company for invasion of privacy. 
"This research tells us that companies need to carefully weigh whatever advantage they believe they get from social media screening against the increased likelihood of alienating potential employees," says Dr. Lori Foster Thompson, a professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper.

"Elite job prospects have options, and are more likely to steer clear of potential employers they don't trust," the authors conclude.

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Companies look at wrong things when screening Facebook
To make matters worse, if you screen the social media accounts of prospective employers, you're screening for the wrong things.  In a related study out of NC State, the same researchers found that screeners often have a fundamental misunderstanding of online behavior and needlessly eliminate good job candidates.

"Companies often scan a job applicant's Facebook profile to see whether there is evidence of drug or alcohol use, believing that such behavior means the applicant is not 'conscientious,' or responsible and self-disciplined," says Dr. Lori Foster Thompson, co-author of the paper. 
  • The researchers found that there is no significant correlation between conscientiousness and an individual's willingness to post content on Facebook about alcohol or drug use.
"This means companies are eliminating some conscientious job applicants based on erroneous assumptions regarding what social media behavior tells us about the applicants," says Will Stoughton, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of the paper.

And companies that are looking for extroverts -- such as those hiring for sales or marketing positions -- may be doing themselves an even worse disservice. The study found that extroverts were significantly more likely to post about drugs or alcohol on Facebook. So companies weeding out those applicants are likely to significantly limit the pool of job candidates who are extroverts.

The one thing to screen for?
If you feel you must screen job candidates' social media accounts, there is one personality trait that employers should look for.
  • Study participants who rated high on both agreeableness and conscientiousness were also very unlikely to "badmouth" or insult other people on Facebook.
"If employers plan to keep using social media to screen job applicants, this study indicates they may want to focus on eliminating candidates who badmouth others -- not necessarily those who post about drinking beer," Stoughton says.
*  *  *  *  *

Story Source:  Materials provided by North Carolina State University. 

  1. J. William Stoughton, Lori Foster Thompson, Adam W. Meade. Big Five Personality Traits Reflected in Job Applicants' Social Media Postings. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2013.
  2. J. William Stoughton, Lori Foster Thompson, Adam W. Meade. Examining Applicant Reactions to the Use of Social Networking Websites in Pre-Employment Screening. Journal of Business and Psychology, 2013

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