Swipe right or swipe left? Should a candidate’s social media be fair game in the hiring process?

by Pranav Ramesh
February 22, 2022

Social media permeates so many aspects of daily life. Most people use it to promote themselves, document a trip, or provide big life updates to family and friends. Occasionally, we may post about our political views or show off a new purchase. Lots of people use social media platforms to improve their professional network and opportunities.  

It’s no secret that many employers review the social media profiles of candidates during the hiring process. For years, mentors and professors have warned the digitally savvy, incoming workforce to audit their public social media profiles to ensure the content was appropriate should a potential employer take a look. This additional level of vetting has led to some interesting questions to consider.  

What role should a candidate’s social media presence play when it comes to the hiring process? Should candidates be judged by hiring managers for their social media history? Is there anything useful that a recruiter can glean from reviewing a candidate’s social media posts? Let’s take a moment to examine the benefits and drawbacks of using social media to further vet job candidates.  


What a candidate’s social media can show recruiters

The most obvious reason recruiters review the social media profiles of candidates is for further screening. Recruiters can try to determine if the candidate would be a good cultural fit for their client. What a candidate posts on their social media can give recruiters a sample of personality traits and what their passions are. Will those values and beliefs a candidate has openly shared be a good fit for that particular position at that company? Reviewing social media profiles also can help a recruiter potentially learn more about the skills of a candidate. With more and more social media users posting videos highlighting different talents, recruiters are getting more of an indication about what candidates are actually like a what skillsets they actually have. 

Obviously, recruiters want to avoid at all costs putting forth candidates to clients that display racist, homophobic, violent, and other offensive rhetoric on their social media profiles. Employers want to make sure the people they hire embody the mission and values of their company. If a candidate makes it through the selection process and is hired, it is almost certain that their new co-workers will find out about controversial or offensive posts as employees get to know each other and become friends on social media. Many recruiters would prefer finding out about offensive behaviors sooner rather than later.  


The drawbacks of using social media to vet candidates 

It’s important to consider the other side of this issue. While recruiters want to take advantage of all the information freely available to them via social media, much of what they uncover is information that they are ethically challenging from using or legally prohibited from using in the hiring process. For example, details found easily online about candidates including gender, disabilities, reproductive status, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation are pieces of information that can’t be used legally in the vetting process. Fortunately, new and exciting AI tools being used in recruiting help to eliminate human biases through resume aggregators and anonymous talent ranking. When recruiters review the social media platforms of candidates, it reintroduces those biases right back into the hiring process. Just as it’s important for recruiters to find perfect candidates for their clients, it’s also crucial they don’t violate any U.S. employment laws in the process.  

As recruitment continues to advance and become more data-driven, recruiters should also consider what effect their use of social media to vet candidates has on the outcomes of the search. Did reviewing a candidate’s social media profile increase their score? How accurately does it predict job performance or turnover for that candidate? As researchers continue to study this practice, looking at some initial findings could help recruiters determine if social media vetting is worth it in the hiring process.   


What do studies and surveys tell us about social media and the hiring process?

With the importance social media has in our daily lives, it’s become the norm for recruiters and employers to incorporate a social media review into their vetting process. According to a CareerBuilder survey from 2018, 70% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates. And of those that majority, 57% have found content within social media profiles that caused them not to hire a particular candidate.  

Some academic studies that have recently been conducted reach different conclusions. A 2020 article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, entitled “What’s on job seekers’ social media sites? A content analysis and effects of structure on recruiter judgments and predictive validity” found that employers should be careful about using social media profiles to vet candidates because they provide access to demographic information that U.S. employment laws usually prohibit companies from using during the hiring process, such as age and ethnicity.  

Another study, published in Personnel Review in 2019 (“Social media snooping on job applicants: The effects of unprofessional social media information on recruiter perceptions.”) wanted to investigate how hiring professionals use social media profile information to evaluate the likelihood that candidates might engage in “counterproductive work behaviors.” The results of the studies showed that profiles deemed “unprofessional” by the study’s standards negatively influenced recruiter evaluations while professional profiles had little or no effect on evaluations.  

Not surprisingly, the debate over if and how recruiters should use the social media profiles of candidates continues, despite what we know about human bias and what studies show. If you’re still intent on using social media to continue to vet candidates, consider implementing a “how-to” guide for best practices in social media screening that can lead to useful information in your hiring process, and hopefully, less bias.  

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