The Surprising Ways Social Media Posts Bias Hiring Managers

Your potential boss might have formed an opinion about you before you walk though the door. A new study reveals that nearly a third of companies scoured social media and cut candidates from consideration before meeting them. What they look for might surprise you.

We like to track all the creative ways people find work. We’ve seen how a well-placed tweet -or three- can land you a dream job and how Facebook or blogging can lead to a full time gig.

But all that sharing may not always be in a candidate’s best interest. A new study from Carnegie Mellon University found that up to a third of U.S. businesses were checking applicants out on social media early in the hiring process. Among them, the researchers found discrimination tied to affiliation with a political party.

"I am an advocate for employers using social media early in the recruiting stage if they do so to broaden their candidate pool by reaching and engaging with candidates who may otherwise not be aware of or interested in the position," says Steven Rothberg, president of’s job board. "But using social media to exclude candidates for reasons such as race, school, or which football team the candidate follows is dangerous to the employer's brand, bad for their bottom line, likely to lead to litigation, and morally wrong."

The thing about getting eliminated because of a Facebook status or tweet is that most candidates will never know why they weren’t called back. "It’s very common practice [among recruiters] to search and see what they can find on a social network," says David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting firm.

However, because of the fear of legal action hiring managers never mention the tweet or blog post that colored their decision. Any decision to exclude a candidate that relates to to age, ethnicity, health, or gender could land a recruiter in plenty of hot water. "We don't tell people why, we just tell them another candidate was more closely a fit for our job," says Lewis.

Steve Nguyen, a consultant and trainer at Workplace Psychology, says some people might believe that social media gives firms, recruiters, and hiring managers an unfair advantage because they can learn so much about a candidate before they ever get an interview. "The reality is that we willingly post a great amount of information about who we are," he says, from headshot photos to selfies, professional advice to comments about how terrible we felt when our favorite sports team loses. "We put ourselves on full display and share many things that, taken together, reveal our beliefs, tastes, and even personalities," he observes.

That can be a good thing for a company, argues Tom Gimbel, president and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing firm. "A crucial factor during the hiring process for many companies is finding the right culture fit. Skills can be taught, but culture fit cannot," he points out.

Finding someone who will match the company's values, work ethic, etc. can be tough, he says but social media offers a glimpse into a candidate’s personality. It shouldn’t be the only way to get to know an applicant, he cautions. "After a phone call a hiring manager can view the candidate's social media and decide whether it matches what the candidate was saying. If a person comes off very professional during the phone call but is posting inappropriate jokes or photos, it's a red flag," Gimbel explains. It's also a great way to see whether or not the candidate would represent the company well. "If they post negative comments on a public platform, who says they won't do the same about your company?" Gimbel posits.

Nguyen maintains that social media can benefit the candidate by painting a broader picture of them to a potential employer. Beyond LinkedIn’s space for employment background, volunteer experiences, and recommendations though, it can get a little tricky. "One challenge I see is the difficulties people have of separating their personal and professional social media presence," he says, "The problem is that hiring managers might not be able to tell the difference between job candidates' personal and professional lives." If a "personal" account is open to anyone, all the crazy antics and crude remarks are there for the public to read and judge.

Nguyen says that while it can be tempting for hiring managers to look at job candidates' social media profiles before being interviewed, he believed it may cause confirmation bias. "It’s our tendency to prefer information that confirms our beliefs and expectations about people or things, while ignoring information that contradicts them," he explains.

"Of course, in reality, hiring managers can do this without ever using social media. Indeed, it may not be very different than having a prospective candidate walk in for a face-to-face interview and judging that applicant based on his or her appearance," Nguyen adds.

For job seekers, the consensus is proceed with caution. Says Gimbel: "At the end of the day, the goal for a hiring manager is to find the right fit for the company and position. Social media is one tool to help them do that."

[Image: Flickr user Steve Karsch]

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