Social media screening is the dirty secret of the recruitment industry. You would be hard pressed to find a business that openly admits to Googling candidates before offering them a role, because the practice is rarely overt – yet one in five employers polled by YouGov say they have turned down a prospective employee after seeing their social media profile.
It’s time we brought the issue into the open to debate its rights and wrongs, before it leads to some seriously bad decisions and potentially illegal behaviour.
The current legal situation around basing hiring decisions on social media is unclear. As a recruiter, I am never asked by clients to screen applicants’ posts. But I cannot guarantee they aren’t doing so themselves – the temptation to reach for a search engine before you rubber-stamp a new hire is only natural.
When we recruit our own employees directly, we connect with them on Facebook before they join, and we check if a CV tallies with a LinkedIn profile. That’s not unusual; the lines between social media, life and work have blurred considerably over the past few years. Most recruiters have incorporated elements of social media into their work as a sourcing and engagement tool. But what employers see on the likes of Instagram and Twitter can be seriously off-putting: YouGov cites everything from offensive language and references to drug use to evidence of drunkenness and even poor grammar as reasons to turn candidates down.
The issue was brought home to me when I was asked to contribute to a Radio 1 investigation into the unexpected consequences of social media, and the lack of awareness among young people in particular about how employers might view what they regard as private communications.
Two students I spoke to for the programme were adamant that their social media output was relatively anodyne. Yet the amount of personal information they shared was surprising, as was the fact they hadn’t engaged privacy settings that would have kept them away from prying eyes.
One had joined a Facebook group dedicated to cheating in exams, something he said he couldn’t recall doing. The other had posted a scantily clad photo from a pole dancing class. This may seem frivolous but, as the show discovered, employers are unimpressed: one employee recounted how she was fired for an Instagram post showing her performing a cartwheel in her company’s boardroom.
It’s possible to overstate the impact of social media on hiring decisions. In most cases, it’s being used simply to double check if they have a professional online persona as part of the risk management process. But it’s clear that we need to be more open about such screening and potentially put guidelines in place about what is and isn’t acceptable.
In the meantime, there are several rules that are worth following in your own social media activity – whether or not you’re young or prone to oversharing. First, delete anything that could be seen as unacceptable. Put yourself in the shoes of a prospective employer and think about whether they could view it in a different light to the one you intended. Remember you can request that Google removes any material you want to be forgotten.
Next, look at your privacy settings. From there, you can start to manage your social media accounts to better represent the personal brand you want employers to see. Join groups and comment on, publish, share and like posts that position you as a good hire.
But remember that, as employers, social media works both ways. If we are looking at candidates, they are viewing us – whether to see if our posts chime with their values or whether our Glassdoor reviews match up to our recruitment material. When it comes to what we share online, we could all do with wising up.
Dan Hawes is co-founder of the Graduate Recruitment Bureau