It’s 2014, which means that Facebook will be 10 years old this February. Since the site launched it has become standard procedure for companies to screen job candidates based on their social media profiles. A recent study, however, suggests that the practice may actually drive away qualified applicants who feel that their privacy has been compromised.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that when job applicants realize an organization has viewed their social media profile, they are less likely to perceive the hiring process as fair, regardless of whether they were offered the position. The practice may have serious repercussions for the hiring organization’s reputation and make applicants more inclined to resort to litigation, says Will Stoughton, a doctoral student in industrial psychology and lead author of the paper. The study was published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. “There could be all kinds of negative consequences for creating a selection process that is perceived as invasive and unfair,” says Lori Foster Thompson, a psychology professor at N.C. State and one of the paper’s co-authors. “When you think about the fact that top talent usually has a lot of choices as to where they want to go to work, it begins to really matter.”

Although job applicants would not necessarily know if their social media profiles had been screened, they have several ways of finding out, Foster Thompson says. For instance, an applicant might be tipped off after receiving a suspicious friend request or by talking with current employees and hiring managers who disclose the information—either accidentally or on purpose—in the course of the interview.

Pervasive practice

In 2013 almost half of all companies reported using social media profiles to make hiring decisions, according to a survey by the London-based Institute for Employment Studies. Although the practice is pervasive, social media screening is a relatively new phenomenon, and many companies lack clear guidelines about how and when it should be used—raising questions about whether the practice violates any antidiscrimination laws. “The legal landscape concerning the use of social media for screening is changing quickly,” Stoughton says. “Organizations that don't have formal processes regarding the use of social media for selection may put themselves at risk of legal complaints because of inconsistent practices.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other antidiscrimination laws prohibit employers from making hiring decisions on the basis of certain protected characteristics, such as an applicant’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender or disability status. Those details are often present on an individual’s social media profile, however, giving managers access to information that would not be available to them otherwise. Profile screening could thus potentially color their judgment of the applicant—whether they realize it or not. For instance, in a 2009 study conducted for the site CareerBuilder more than half of employers reported that the biggest factor influencing their decision not to hire an applicant was the presence of provocative photos on the candidate’s social media profile, an issue more likely to affect women than men.

Turned off
In the first of two experiments, 175 college students applied for what they thought was a temporary research assistant position. Two weeks later the researchers informed some of the students that their social media profiles had been screened for professionalism, whereas others received no information about screening. The students were then asked to give anonymous feedback on the selection process.

Students whose social media profiles had been screened found the selection procedure to be unfair and were less attracted to the organization than students who were not told they had been screened. The result is consistent with previous research, which has indicated that when potential employees feel they have been treated unfairly they are less likely to accept a job offer, and may be more likely to quit if they have already started employment. “The screening and selection process is the first interaction between the applicant and the company,” Stoughton says. “Applicants may interpret poor treatment, such as screening via social media, as an indication of how they would be treated on the job.”

“It’s a particular concern in terms of thinking about the reputation of the company and what they are communicating to future employees,” agrees Kristl Davison, an organizational psychologist at the University of Mississippi School of Business Administration. “I think it could certainly lead to higher turnover in the long run.”

The second experiment tested if the results generalized beyond college students. Stoughton and his team recruited 208 U.S. adults using an online survey tool and asked them to imagine they were applying for a job. Participants were given a hypothetical description of the hiring practices at a fictional company and were separated into three groups. One group was told that their Facebook profiles were screened and they had received a job offer, another was told that their profiles were screened and they had not received a job offer; the a control group did not receive information on the company’s social media policy.

As in the original experiment, the participants who were told that their social media profile had been screened formed negative opinions about the hiring organization regardless of whether they had received a job offer. They also reported that they would be more likely to sue an organization if they found its hiring practices to be unjust.

Questionable value
Davison points out that although screening job applicants’ social media profiles is now routine, few studies have assessed the practice’s validity as a hiring tool. She thinks that the N. C. State paper is an important first step but says that more research is needed to make sure the information gleaned from an applicant’s social media profile actually tells an organization relevant information about the applicant’s fitness for the position as well as whether the interpretation of that information is standardized across all observers.

It’s now accepted wisdom that job applicants should clean up their social media profiles before sending out their resumes, but organizations should also be careful when using sites like Facebook and Twitter in hiring decisions, Davison says. She encourages companies to adopt strict guidelines for social media screening, such as those developed by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development, which include giving job candidates a chance to respond if some aspect of their social media profile has negatively influenced their application, and informing them that their profile may be screened ahead of time.

“There’s something to be said for doing this in a way that seeks the applicant’s permission,” paper co-author Foster Thompson says. “It’s possible that if that is handled well, that could even reflect positively on an organization.”