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Judging a Facebook by Its Cover


by Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Study shows social network screening makes organizations unattractive to applicants

By Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Social networking websites offer a potentially large amount of personal information to organizations about job applicants. However, one SIOP member says organizations that implement online screening practices through sites like Facebook may reduce their attractiveness to applicants and current employees.

Previous studies show up to sixty-five percent of organizations screen applicants through social networking websites, said Will Stoughton, a doctoral candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at North Carolina State University. While organizations may practice this in order to find the best applicants, the social network screening process actually reduces an organization’s attractiveness for the applicant and likely the incumbent worker, Stoughton said. He, and coauthors Lori Foster Thompson and Adam Meade, conducted a study on the effects of screening in the workplace and presented this research at the 27th Annual SIOP Conference in April.

In the study, 175 students applied for a fictitious temporary job they believed to be real and were later informed they were screened. Applicants were less willing to take a job offer after being screened, perceiving the action to reflect on the organization’s fairness and treatment of employees based on a post-study questionnaire. They also felt their privacy was invaded.

Organizations claim they screen social networks in order to find the best applicants and weed out the bad ones—and it can be easy to find personal information.When organizations screen applicants, they typically look for pictures of alcohol or drug-related use and any remarks about previous employers or coworkers through their Facebook profiles or by Googling them, Stoughton said. Organizations can even ask interns who have access to Facebook to send a friend request to the applicant. Past research demonstrated a 50 percent chance that an individual will accept a stranger’s friend request, he said.

However, screening social networks doesn’t always accomplish the intended goal.

“By doing this, you assume the applicants that organizations end up choosing are more conscientious, but no studies show that these individuals are any better,” Stoughton said.“They could actually be eliminating better applicants.”

Social network screening could also affect current employees.If employees see the organization acting this way, they could be more likely to leave because of their fairness perceptions changing as well, Stoughton said.

“Why would people want to stick around if they feel they are going to be treated improperly?” he asked. “It leaves a sour taste in both the applicants’ and incumbents’ mouths.”

Stoughton also said that with long term jobs, those feelings may intensify because the stakes are higher with the applicants and employees.

Social network screening isn’t new. Stoughton said he began his research back in 2007 when social networking became mainstream. He said he knew the possibility of a new electronic monitoring could grow along with networking.

The legality of screening social networking websites faces an uncertain legal future, Stoughton said. As social networking becomes more integrated into society, the legal issues could change and organizations could face invasion of privacy claims, he explained.

The law has already begun to tackle more invasive screening practices with some states banning organizations from asking for employees’ Facebook usernames and passwords. Maryland was the first state to implement such a law in April.

Stoughton said he could see a ban of social network screening as a possibility in the future as well. Besides, there are other ways to pare down the applicant pool, Stoughton said.

Alternatives like electronic scanning can look for specific key words human resources may be looking for in resumes in order to get the better ones, he said.

“If organizations are going to screen social networking websites,”he said. “They should weigh the possible benefits with its costs.”