How Social Media Content Hurts Job Seekers

More employers not ‘liking’ applicants because of what appears in social networking posts

By Kathy Gurchiek July 21, 2014

Looking for a job? You might want to rethink what you’re posting on social media and delete those photos of your arrest warrant, the Bigfoot snaps you took and your boasts of driving drunk without getting caught.

The number of employers passing on job applicants because of the candidates’ social media content continues to rise, from 34 percent in 2012 to more than half of 2,138 employers surveyed in February and March 2014. Harris Poll conducted the national online survey for CareerBuilder.

“The first rule for any individual: You should always assume what you share on the Internet is public. Period. The end,” said Courtney Shelton Hunt, Ph.D., founder and principal of The Denovati Group, a digital consulting firm in Chicago. “Even if I decide to delete [a post], it doesn’t take long for someone [else] to make it permanent.”

Some people are taking precautions. Nearly half of 3,022 full-time, private-sector workers surveyed only share posts with friends and family, the survey found, and 41 percent have their profile set to private. A smaller number, 18 percent, keep separate professional and personal profiles, the CareerBuilder survey found.

An increasing number of organizations use social networking sites to research candidates—43 percent in 2014, up from 39 percent in 2013 and 36 percent in 2012. Almost half use search engines such as Google, and 20 percent do so frequently or always to check out a candidate.

Additionally, 12 percent of employers plan to start researching candidates on social media, even though they don’t currently.

Reasons Applicants Didn’t Get the Job

Among the most common reasons employers opted not to hire someone, based on the person’s social media activity:

  • Applicant posted provocative or inappropriate photos or similar information (cited by 46 percent of respondents).
  • Applicant posted information about themselves drinking or using drugs (41 percent).
  • Applicant bad-mouthed his or her previous company or a fellow employee (36 percent).
  • Applicant showed poor communication skills (32 percent).
  • Applicant posted discriminatory comments (28 percent).
  • Applicant posted confidential information from a previous employer (24 percent).

Source: CareerBuilder survey

Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s vice president of HR, cautioned job seekers to pay attention to privacy updates from all of their accounts and to monitor posts where they’ve been tagged.

“Much of what they post to the Internet—and in some cases what others post about them—can be found by potential employers, and that can affect their chances of getting hired down the road,” she stated in a news release.

Hunt concurred. “Anything that’s personal that you don’t think relates to your personal brand, your privacy setting should reflect that,” she advised. People will invest time in their physical presence—shining their shoes, getting a haircut, carefully picking out their interview clothing—and disregard their digital presence, she noted.

“More people can see you digitally than can see you physically, and we act as if it’s the opposite,” she said.

Some recruiters are aggregating publicly available social postings to find potential candidates and to see what potential candidates are posting and what others are posting about them.

California-based Gild Source Inc., for example, reads and analyzes social data and shared online work of technology developers to find and recruit job candidates. That data comes from scouring more than 80 social and professional networks, including blogs and personal websites, to provide a “total picture of a developer’s social media footprint,” the company says in a video demonstration.

Sometimes a candidate’s social media content can sway employers’ opinions in their favor. One-third of organizations that research candidates on social networking sites said they were more likely to hire the person based on the content they saw, according to the CareerBuilder survey.

Social Media Use That Worked in Applicants’ Favor

Of the employers that said social media content led them to hire a candidate, the reasons they gave were that:

  • The candidate’s background information supported his or her professional qualifications for the job (cited by 45 percent of respondents).
  • The candidate’s website conveyed a professional image (43 percent).
  • The candidate had interacted with the employer’s social media accounts (24 percent).

Source: CareerBuilder survey

Other employers were influenced by the person’s number of followers or subscribers (14 percent) and favorable references (30 percent), but such information should support the job being filled, Hunt said.

Tread Carefully, Employers

Hunt said that anyone involved in the hiring decision should not be involved in screening candidates’ social media content. That way, any information related to a protected-class status remains unknown to decision-makers, eliminating questions of discrimination in hiring.

Should the employer use a third party to screen candidates via social media, “treat it like a regular background check” and get the candidate’s approval in advance, Hunt said. If unflattering information turns up, give the candidate a chance to explain or rebut the information, she added. It could be erroneous or may relate to someone who has the same name as the job candidate.

She cautioned employers to only access publicly available information about a candidate and to limit searches to job relevancy. Even in a digital era, all the old rules for finding potential hires still apply.

“It’s a different playing field, but that doesn’t mean it’s a different ballgame,” Hunt said.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor at HR News.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.