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.” Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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