As young people in the twenty-first century, it is a well-established fact that we seem virtually unable to survive without our daily - or indeed hourly - fix of social media. For many of us, Facebook is the chosen medium for coordinating social events, the evidence of which usually makes its way onto our newsfeed within a matter of hours. However, as social media reaches such an elevated status in every field from business communications to library-bound procrastination, debates about the appropriateness of its uses show no signs of abating. One of the most prominent discussions is the impact of social media accounts on our professional lives, and the question of recruiters pre-screening potential employees based on their online presence.
Concerns are now frequently raised by students, careers advisors, and watchdogs alike about the significance of potentially incriminating social media accounts in damaging future career prospects. Current research does indeed suggest that employers do use Facebook profile checks to screen potential job candidates. Last year, a survey by Harris Interactive found that 37 per cent of employers use social media to research potential job candidates, with a further 11 per cent stating that they intended to begin such pre-screening in the future. Over 65 per cent of those currently checking up on potential employees reported using Facebook as their primary resource, demonstrating the extent to which our online profiles might be viewed and judged by those with some ability to influence our futures.
Many of the employers surveyed purportedly used these searches to see if the applicant 'presents him- or herself professionally'. Other reasons provided by recruiters included checking to see if the prospective employees would be a good fit with the company's culture, and learning more about their qualifications.
According to the report, 34 per cent of hiring managers had come across something which caused them not to hire a candidate. In almost half of these instances, the applicant was rejected for either posting a photo that was considered inappropriate or provocative, or making reference to excessive drinking or drug use. Other applications were discarded due to negative comments about former employers, false claims about qualifications, or simply for being unable to write well.
In light of this, many professionals, such as Bernadette John, digital professionalism and social media lead at King's College London, are advising students - especially those on the hunt for graduate employment - to clean up their online presence ahead of applying for jobs. Prospective bosses are unlikely to approve of membership to misogynistic or politically incorrect groups, or online communities where members admit to sexual indiscretions. Equally, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that an employer probably won't look too kindly on a profile picture which shows you passed out drunk outside the Hive on a Tuesday night. While incriminating evidence of nights out past may have seemed hilarious in first year, by fourth year it seems that there is an increasing trend towards destroying - or at the very least privatising - the evidence, lest an employer comes snooping. Indeed, John strongly recommends that students clean up their photo albums prior to sending out job applications, although she warns of over-sanitising your online presence to the extent of appearing "bland and characterless".
That said, the prevailing advice is the most obvious: if we do not want employers to see something on our social media accounts, it is up to us to ensure that they cannot see it.
The growing trend of pre-screening has triggered debate on several fronts. Perhaps the most recurring complaint is the unfairness of such tactics in professional recruitment. Several students interviewed have expressed concern that they will be judged by potential employers on aspects of their lives that are totally unconnected to their professional competency. One recent graduate commented that she thought it unfair that "potential employees could be discriminated against because they enjoy going out and having a social life in their free time." Other students, however, question the significance of such pre-screenings, expressing disbelief that employers would genuinely discriminate between applicants on the basis of their activities outside of working hours.
It seems undeniable that online profile screening presents clear ethical complications. The use of private social media accounts has been perceived by some as a gross violation of personal privacy, which should not be necessary in determining the suitability of a candidate for a professional role. However, the privacy settings on most social media sites do enable users to strictly control what is viewable to the public, and so what is visible to potential employers can be construed as the personal responsibility of the account holder.
That said, ethical concerns have abounded still further with reports of employers asking candidates for their passwords, or to log into their Facebook accounts during job interviews, thereby rendering even the strictest online privacy settings useless. In a recent article, Bernadette John described this as "a breach of... privacy and also a legal breach of Facebook's own terms and conditions' and noted that several US states have now actually legislated against this practice. The practice of employers asking for applicants" passwords was also criticised by Facebook's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, who claimed, "We don't think it's the right thing to do."
Despite the ethical issues, the use of social media screen by employers is a reality of our time. With this in mind, it is worth considering the positive side of the connection between online presence and employment prospects. Just as social media can be used by employers to screen out the sort of employees a company sees as undesirable, it equally presents opportunities for applicants to present themselves well. Careers advisors are keen to point out the potential benefits of using professional networking tools such as LinkedIn, which enables the user to build an online professional profile and CV.
John recommends that students use Facebook to their advantage by liking groups that represent the brands they want to work for, observing discussions on their pages, and making thoughtful contributions to get themselves noticed. Twitter can also be used strategically, as employers may take note of who we're following and take us seriously or lightly accordingly. Tweeting relevantly and insightfully can be an advantage, especially for careers in media and communications, but it is most certainly not confined to these areas.
Whatever your opinion on the use of social media in employment practices, it seems that as long as social media sticks around, such background checks are probably here to stay. While the decision to employ sadly does not lie with us, we do still have some control over what the big bosses will be able to see. Whether we choose to exploit the opportunities to promote ourselves professionally, censor the evidence of exploits past, or simply to ignore human resource's Big Brother is ultimately down to us.
Follow Francesca Mitchell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/francescaannlou