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The Brave New World of Social Media Screening for New Hires

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Steve McDonald, an associate professor of sociology at NC State who studies social networks and labor markets. This is one of a series of posts from NC State researchers that address the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

President Trump has been having a tough time filling job openings in his administration. One problem is that potential new hires are expected to pass a loyalty test that involves scrutinizing their social media activity. Apparently, it is difficult to find qualified applicants who have never posted anything negative about Mr. Trump on their Twitter or Facebook feeds.

This new approach to hiring in the White House is actually quite common. As social media has proliferated, employers have increasingly been using online information to evaluate job candidates. Recent survey data suggest that 43 percent of organizations screen job candidates by using social media or online search engines. In some cases, employers require that applicants provide passwords to their social media profiles to allow for easier viewing.

Despite the increasing use of these hiring practices, relatively little is known about them. What kinds of information are recruiters looking for and where do they look for it? What kinds of guidelines do they follow to protect the privacy of job applicants and to guard against bias?

Social scientists have begun to answer these important questions. Ongoing research, by myself and others, confirms that human resource (HR) professionals routinely review information from social media profiles and Google searches to eliminate some job candidates and move others to the top of the hiring queue. These practices can result in discriminatory hiring, especially when the “hunt for red flags” involves reviewing online pictures of job candidates.

Despite these concerns, organizations lack a comprehensive, standardized and proactive approach to dealing with the negative consequences of online applicant screening. Survey data show that 59 percent of firms have no formal or informal policy on how to use online information as part of the screening process. HR provides hiring managers with extensive training on many aspects of the hiring process, but rarely on why online content is problematic to evaluate or how to distinguish job-relevant online data from irrelevant content.

The potential problems associated with social media screening have been compounded by the increasing reliance on third-party hiring consultants to gather information about the digital footprint of job candidates. When a company has a new opening, the HR professionals in that organization can send their list of applicants to a consulting firm that will then use web-scraping techniques to gather information from the Internet on each applicant. This information can include posts to social media as well as information obtained via Google. The text data are processed and analyzed to generate a report on the digital footprint of each applicant (often including a personality profile).

These newer “computational” approaches to evaluating job candidates raise serious questions about privacy and discrimination. Congress has just passed legislation that will make it far easier for these third-party companies to access not only social media information, but also individual web-browsing activities. Proponents of these techniques claim that they are bias-free, but the data inputs are certain to be indirectly correlated with race, gender, age, and other protected categories. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already begun to examine the legal consequences of these practices.

Research is needed to learn more about the ways in which employers access and use online information. How prevalent are these practices? What types of companies seek out this kind of consulting and for which types of jobs? What rationales do they provide for engaging in these practices? What specific data inputs are used and what types of digital information (if any) are considered out-of-bounds?

More needs to be learned about the implications of these practices for the workforce and for organizations. To what extent do these practices make certain groups of workers more vulnerable to unemployment? What strategies do workers engage in to counteract this form of surveillance? How do these practices impact worker attitudes, satisfaction, and organizational commitment? To what extent do these practices improve hiring outcomes and organizational productivity? In short, are the consequences worth the costs?

Answering these questions will help us better understand the broader impact of social media and Internet technology on the job market and what that means for our society.