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Pre-Employment Screening Through Facebook: A Way to Find Reliable Employees or a Misuse of the Internet?

By Zahur Sallman | Inquiry Essay

When it comes to the topic of hiring for vacant positions in a company, most of us will readily agree that employers look for someone who is responsible, reliable, and gets their work done. Agreement ends, however, regarding the question of whether or not employers can use social networking sites to determine if an applicant is good for the company or not. Whereas some are convinced that the only way to truly see what an applicant is like is to search their social profile on the Internet, others maintain that employers should not delve into an applicant’s information beyond what pertains to the job vacancy. My own experience relates to the use of the Internet to hire employees because my friend’s application was rejected by a dental clinic due to some of her Facebook photos posted online. The pictures showed her at what seemed to be a high school party where under aged drinking was occurring. The employer who looked at the photos didn’t know, however, that the party was high school sponsored and that the students were just drinking soda. Others argue that Facebook reflects people’s values since almost everything on it is intentional. One question to ask ourselves is why employers give so much credibility to a social profile when they have so many methods of evaluating an applicant’s work ethic. Does a Facebook profile provide an employer an accurate sense of what a person’s work ethic is like?

According to The Federal Law Communications Journal article, “The Newest Way to Screen Job Applicants: A Social Networker’s Nightmare,” while people who use Facebook are openly displaying their photos and comments to all of the people they know, they still expect to have a certain degree of privacy in their profiles (Brandenburg, 9). Thus, another question arises over this debate: can people who use social networks online expect privacy in their profiles? There are many ways to look at someone’s Facebook profile, even if that profile is not in public view. Brandenburg illustrates one way to do so as she explains that, “some companies also hire current students who can access their peers’ networking profiles and effectively circumvent any privacy settings a potential hire may have put in place” (9). In other words, Brandenburg believes that no Facebook user’s profile is private because any friend of that user can easily look up that person’s profile for their employer if he/she is a prospective employee. Brandenburg shows through various court cases that people can have an expectation of privacy even when they reveal information to others. But at the same time, she wonders how a court might rule on a Facebook user’s privacy claim against an employer who found information about that user without permission. However, she does acknowledge that, “a person who attempts to protect and secure their privacy and information is more deserving of that privacy than one who does not care about protecting privacy” (16). So are employers violating Facebooks terms of usage when they search for a prospective employee through someone else’s account? In Brandenburg’s view, “an employee that uses another’s Facebook account on a company’s behalf is also a clear violation of the terms of use policy.” Her point is that since employers use Facebook as a means of screening potential employees, they are violating Facebook’s terms of usage because they are using it for commercial purposes.

This is the exact point of Matthew Hutson in his article “Hire Priorities.” Hutson maintains the view that employers who use Facebook to screen potential employees will be distracted by irrelevant things (such as drunk party pictures) when they try to determine how well that person would work in their company. One important thing to note is that anyone who is being screened on a social network such as Facebook is being prejudged as to his or her ability to perform in the workplace. He urges and pleads for job seekers to “privatize your profiles now, for the good of everyone,” because employers may misinterpret what is on a Facebook profile and consequently deny someone a job (15). A picture posted online can have many meanings, as my own experience confirmed. Unlike the interviewing process, there is no personal context when an employer searches for someone’s profile on Facebook. In other words, employers do not know the circumstances around which photos were taken or comments were posted on the profile. Therefore, the information found on a social networking profile can be misread or misunderstood.

But at the same time, a picture that does have an obvious meaning (such as a person holding a beer can in their hand) can have an effect on what an employer thinks of your values. A person who knowingly drinks underage and is posting pictures of himself or herself drinking can convey to the employer that he doesn’t hold high regard for the law and consequently he may be seen as detrimental for that company’s image. An article in The New York Times illustrates one such example. Anna Homayoun, who runs a small firm that tutors and teaches organizational skills to high school students, looked up a promising job applicant’s name on Facebook. She found photos and comments about that applicant’s sexual escapades, pot smoking and drinking. She exclaimed that she was “shocked by the amount of stuff that [the applicant] was willing to publicly display,” (Finder, 3) and as a consequence the applicant didn’t get the job. But do things such as drinking, sexual escapades, and pot smoking really affect what goes on in the workplace? Shouldn’t a good employee be able to keep his or her personal and work life separate? Maureen Crawford, manager of talent acquisition at Osram Sylvania, prefers not to look up applicant names on the Internet because she believes that “that part of them…[is not] related to their bona fide occupational qualifications” (Finder, 2). Her words illustrate her opinion that pre-employment screening distracts the employer from an applicant’s work qualifications.

This is similar to the argument made in a Career World article, “Post At Your Own Risk.” According to this article, employers can access information from websites such as Facebook and MySpace that they wouldn’t otherwise access from a resume or in an interview. One such employer, Dave Krier, first looked at an executive assistant position candidate’s resume and thought that it was perfect for the job. However, he then looked up the young woman’s name on a social networking site and found shocking photos that caused him to drastically change his opinion of her. As a result, the young woman was not called in for an interview. The article tried to persuade social networkers to not “post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see” (7). In making this comment, the article urges us to be more careful of what we post on Facebook because it has an impression on how others view your disposition and work ethic. A grandmother would not like seeing her grandchild’s “inappropriate photos, profanity, and references to any type of illegal activity on personal Web pages,” (Post, 7) because they don’t reflect good values in a person. In essence, the article equates grandmothers to employers because both expect a certain amount of respect towards them and a certain temperament from the people around them. Then why do Facebook users have things such as pictures of themselves drunk at a party on their profiles? Do Facebook users have an intended image for their profiles?

This is the question of debate in Joy Peluchette and Katherine Karl’s article in The Journal of Education for Business, “Examining Students Intended Image on Faceboook: What Were They Thinking?!” The article investigates the influences that cause students to post information on Facebook that employers would think inappropriate. Peluchette and Karl first look at the kind of image students try to portray and whether their image relates to whether or not they post information that employer’s would find inappropriate. When discussing the profiles of students on Facebook, Peluchette and Karl claim that not all students want to hide information about their personal life because they find that posting provocative photos online can attract the attention of their peers. They observe that, “alcohol and risky sexual behavior tend to be a big part of college life and are even considered as a rite of passage for some incoming freshman” (31). Through their observation, Peluchette and Karl exemplify the fact that incoming freshmen want to fit in to their new, less restricted, college lives and that they do so through drinking alcohol and risky sexual behavior. Because alcohol, according to the article, is such a big part of college life, those who drink would most likely post pictures and comments of themselves drinking with the intent to appear as if they like to party. But Peluchette and Karl remind us that “such content would not be socially acceptable to a general audience [and] it is likely that [students] would be less willing to want such information seen by their family or potential employers” (32). Peluchette and Karl believe that students would not want their underage drinking and illegal drug use to be seen by their family or by their employers, even though it may be acceptable to their peers. In an effort to be socially accepted, students may conform to the expected norms for college students (drinking, partying, etc) and this conformity can have negative consequences on their future employment opportunities. In Peluchette and Karl’s article, employment lawyer George Lenard argued that employers can use social networking sites to screen job applicants as long as they don’t violate specific laws (35). Therefore, it is up to students to become more discretionary of the pictures and comments that they post online before it can affect their future. But even if students remove these “inappropriate” pictures and comments from their Facebook profiles, it does not mean that their lifestyles will change.

Before the Internet became a global way to connect with people, students said and did things that they might later have regretted. But what they said and did weren’t forever on the Internet for everyone to see. Has the practice of screening job applicants on Facebook led to employers hiring more reliable employees? Or have employers ignored otherwise qualified candidates because they misunderstood or assumed something after reading bits and pieces of a job applicant’s life on Facebook? Social networking sites on the Internet have managed to reduce distance between people and have provided them with the ability to communicate with their family and friends. But what we post online on the Internet may remain there forever, even if we don’t want it to.


Brandenburg, Carly. "The Newest Way to Screen Job Applicants: A Social Networker's Nightmare." Federal Communications Law Journal (June 2008): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.

Finder, Alan. "When a Risque Online Persona Undermines a Resume." New York Times 11 June 2006, Late - Final ed. : n. pag. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

Hutson, Matthew. "Hire Priorities." Psychology Today 43.4: 15-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.

Peluchette, Joy and Katherine Karl. "Examining Students' Intended Image on Facebook: 'What Were They Thinking?!'" Journal of Education for Business 85.1: 30-37. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

"Post at Your Own Risk." Career World 35.6: 7-7, Academic Search Premier. Web 17 Oct. 2010.