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 CollegeRecruiter.com’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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10 Comments

  • Jack Tor...S

    Shouldn't it be common sense to make one's profile private so prospective employers can't see things that shouldn't be seen?

  • Deborah L. Kerr

    OK - some really good news: there are surprisingly accurate and affordable ways to reduce the social media bias and the chance of a hiring mistake (which many companies say can cost something north of $20,000). The best predictor of success in the job is a strong match between job requirements and the candidate’s thinking preferences, personality, and culture fit. Believe it or not, factors like job experience, education, and interviews (which is a conversation rather than data collection) cannot predict the chance of future success on the job. Really – they have about the same success in identifying your best candidates as random selection! (Contact me and I’ll share validity coefficients if you like that sort of thing.)

    The way to find out about that match? Just add one simple step to the existing process: a valid pre-hire applicant assessment. (...not Birkman, DiSC, or MBTI - they are good, but not designed for hiring decisions.) Managers who use assessment at the beginning of the hiring cycle (before they read a single resume) hire faster and report hiring people who are 25% more productive, who sell 50% more per month, and are such a good culture match that after two weeks on the job, no one remembers they are a new hire! Lots of affordable options are available.

  • pathccontrolmonk

    Funny how these articles are always written assuming that all candidates are desperate to get a job. The reality is that the employer should be equally aware of potential employees checking out their profiles. If for no other reason than to gain insight in to how to better sell themselves. Beware to both.

  • lucoweb

    so basically a company may know about skeletons in people's closets at a glance, but it would take a couple of months to find out whether you're in an ethical workplace?

  • Randy

    The audacity of it all. How do they even know if they have the right person's twitter or fb account?

  • Mike Hackett

    On the flip side; being "authentic" or "real" on social media (without being stupid)can help a candidate stand out. From the candidate perspective; there are also real benefits to avoiding employment with an individual or culture, that is contrary to their values or outlook - especially if they feel the need to be 'someone else' in such interactions.
    If people and organizations are looking to hire "vanilla" that's their choice; but in a hyper competitive knowledge economy, many companies are now looking for people who stand out and can make a difference - rather than those who just blend in. Take a look at the number of organizations that are now actively 'social' in brand, talent acquisition and management; these companies want the best people, their opinions and their best ideas. In the long-term, Vanilla isn't good for candidates, employees or business?

  • Anthony Reardon

    I call these "social modalities" and they are a core focus I have talked about most on the web over the last five years. So nice topic choice Lydia!

    You can actually extend this out from personal, professional, organizational, business, and then open or people in their full complexity.

    One of the major things to keep in mind are the niche definitions for various social networks. So Facebook was originally for "friends and family". LinkedIn for "connecting with professionals you already know". So they influence behavior dynamics, but they continuously evolve too toward people in their full complexity. Facebook wants people to connect more with companies, and LinkedIn wants people to network more around public content. What can end up happening is people get confused on how to conduct themselves appropriately.

    It's one of the reasons a lot of people don't actually participate, because many are unsure how to reconcile their personal and professional interests. For instance, you can throw a bunch of people into a room, and pretty sure they will just naturally start to network- both some degree of socializing but also some professional considerations. However, you put these same people in an online room, you'll probably get mostly crickets, someone overtly soliciting, someone posting their party pic, etc, etc. There are ways to address this and influence an online community to behave for a particular purpose, but it is a phenomena that is still largely unrecognized.

    Privacy controls imply you can control your reputation across different audiences, but it takes a lot of work to do that, and there is no guarantee they will always work for you. Maybe you've heard about some employers actually demanding candidates unlock their Facebook accounts so they can look in? That's kind of unreal, but there is a simple rule of thumb.

    You need to assume that anything you do online is public and remember that you never know who might be looking in. It could be a potential friend, opponent, employer, employee, business partner, or customer. It does involve a professional skill to conduct yourself appropriately for all audiences, while still showcasing some of your unique personality. I will rarely use profanity for instance, but if it is instigated by an author or in some comment, I might take exception to the rule- especially if I am on a platform with a bunch of my Marine buddies because that kind of goes with the culture. However, when you do take exception, you should always think twice about how a different audience looking into you for different reasons might interpret and evaluate it. I can't recommend thinking twice enough, but you might only agree with me if you've experienced putting your foot in your mouth in an online forum.

    So, with that assumption, really what you should do is intentionally put yourself out there for prospective employers. That means taking control of your destiny, delighting some HR person when they look into your social activity, having a portfolio of items you really want to promote to them. Half the battle today is convincing companies you have the right mix of skills and personality to meet their needs. So use social media to demonstrate to those effects. Every personal attribute communicates your social fitness in a work environment, and how you can develop rapport and relate to customers too. You never can know what social modality someone happens to be operating in, and over time your roles can change too. So you really have to be in touch with yourself, pay attention to what people are doing around you on the web, and make decisions that support both your own goals and those of others you may not even know.

    You could even say how you conduct yourself on social media is becoming one of the key differentiating professional skills employers will be looking for.

    Great article!

    Best, Anthony

  • Kat @ BitchesWork.com

    Great article! Gimbel's last point is really interesting. I think something that jumps out to me is the problem that can come up with larger corporations when the hiring manager isn't really in touch what "cultural fit" looks like for a particular team. In the end though like you said, its just a tool, and it can either be helpful or harmful. Regardless we should be aware of what our social media presence looks like!

  • Lydia Dishman

    Good point on larger companies and culture Kat. I think some hiring managers focus on the culture of the department rather than the entire company as a whole.

  • Kat @ BitchesWork.com

    Definitely, it's great when a happy marriage can happen because of it!