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Episode 07: Social media screening in today’s labour market

Social media screening

According to CareerBuilder, in 2006, about 11% of companies were doing some kind of cyber-vetting during their hiring process. In 2017, that number jumped to 70% of companies conducting social media screening.

As the process of social media screening becomes routine for companies, Jenna Jacobson, assistant professor at the School of Retail Management, sits down to discuss her research into the practice, in collaboration with the Social Media Lab.

She discusses the rise of cyber-vetting, the acceptance of the practice and gives students tips about how to manage their social media presence as they enter the labour market.

Social media screening in today's labour market

Nadine Habib:

From the corner of Bay and Dundas in downtown Toronto, this is Like Nobody's Business, a podcast of thought leadership and business innovation. I'm your host Nadine Habib. How often do you think your social media presence is scanned by potential employers? Do you want to know when your online accounts are being screened? On today's episode of Like Nobody's Business, we sit down with Jenna Jacobson, Assistant Professor with the School of Retail Management at the Ted Rogers School of Management. We sat down in her office and discussed her research into the acceptance of social media screening during the hiring process. She talks about the realities of social media screening in today's labor market and give students tips about what to avoid as they try to land their dream job.

Hi Jenna, thank you for joining us.

Jenna Jacobson:

Thank you so much for having me.

Nadine Habib:

So we're right around the time of convocation now, a lot of students have graduated. They're starting their search for that new job after school, and a lot of people are entering into the job market. Should students be expecting that their social media presence is going to be screened when applying for a job?

Jenna Jacobson:

Graduation's really, is an exciting time, and also nerve wracking time for students, as they're leaving university and looking to find that full time employment. It's also important to recognize that student debt, unemployment and precarious gig work is really a reality. So young people are continuing to show a relentless desire to enter into that industry or field. And as young people are entering into the job market, social media screening, or cyber vetting, has become a dominant practice.

Organizations are using social media to check candidates qualifications, to identify how, professionally, candidates are presenting themselves, and also to ensure that candidates are not posting any abusive or harassing content online. And cyber vetting itself is particularly important for young people, like the students graduating from Ryerson, as they're trying to position themselves to enter into the workforce, as their very first job, perhaps that's full time in the labor market.

Nadine Habib:

All right, so in 2006 about 11% of companies were doing some kind of social media screening and in 2016 that number jumped to 60% of companies conducting social media screening. So why do you think there was such a huge spike?

Jenna Jacobson:

So it's interesting in that the 2017 data that recently came out by Career Builder actually suggests now that 70% of companies are engaging in some form of social media screening. So this trend is just increasing over time. Social media is an increasingly important part of our day to day lives. We're going online to share, to connect with one another to learn. If we look at the statistics alone, Facebook has reached 2 billion users and Instagram has over 800 million users. In Canada, 94% of online Canadian adults have at least one social media account, with young people having the highest adoption.

So what this means is that we're producing a huge amount of data about ourselves each and every day. And much of this social media data is publicly available, meaning that it can be used by third parties for whatever reason. So a public account is an account where you don't need to actually accept a friend request in order for somebody to see your content. And this would be typical on accounts like LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, maybe Instagram, perhaps. So the unprecedented use of all of social media means that organizations have increased access to social media data.

So employers can access data on social media in ways that they've never had before. So employers can engage in a simple Google search, perhaps, and locate the social media profiles of a job applicant. They can also go a step further and do a more sophisticated analysis of an applicant's digital footprint online. We also have new startups that are seeking to capitalize on this opportunity and have emerged to offer fee-based social media screening services that supposedly screen to determine fit; like family histories, reveal negative attributes such as drinking or sexual posts, as well as also identify any other risks that could jeopardize the company. So with this increased social media use, we have increased social media data that these organizations can use.

Nadine Habib:

And you've researched and examined the acceptance of social media screenings of job applicants. Can you tell us a little bit more about what your research is about?

Jenna Jacobson:

So in collaboration with Doctor [Anatolyi Gruzd 00:05:21] at TRSM and Elizabeth Dubois at the University of Ottawa, we're studying social media users perceptions of their data being used by these third parties. So third parties can be employers or marketers, academics, the government. So in this specific study we did an online survey of over 450 participants with a focus on cyber vetting. We wanted to understand what are people's comfort with potential employers using social media data, and beyond just leather are aware of the practice or not, we wanted to measure people's comfort. How comfortable do we actually feel with the idea of a potential employer using our publicly available social media data? So questions that we asked include; does it matter who uses the social media information? Does it matter what data and for what purpose? And for social media screening, we found that people are generally somewhat uncomfortable with prospective employers accessing their social media data.

And this is really important because we're talking about social media data that is publicly available and people are still having expectations of privacy. So what this points to and the significance of this research is that it identifies that just because the social media data is public, people still have context specific expectations of privacy.

Nadine Habib:

That's really interesting, because you would think that if somebody had their Instagram or their Facebook open, that they would expect that somebody could just go creep you and that's the norm, right? If your information is open, but I guess not, right?

Jenna Jacobson:

It's all about those expected audiences. So we expect that our family and friends are looking at our social media profiles. That's who we put the information out there for. But when you have a public profile, your audience is perhaps much larger than you had anticipated. Other companies, employers, other third parties can have access to that data and use that data in ways that you had otherwise not anticipated.

Nadine Habib:

Right. Wow. And so I think there is certain types of differences you found when it comes to job applications, or people's comforts with being screened for a job, depending on your country ... the country that you're from. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jenna Jacobson:

So in the research we wanted to analyze what influences someone's comfort with the practice of cyber vetting. We know that the majority of people that we surveyed were largely not comfortable, but what really influences their level of comfort? So one of the questions that we ask is, do people who are living in the US react to the practice of social media screening differently than those in India? These were two of the largest user groups in our research.

And this is driven by the idea that the US is a highly individualistic society, and this is well researched and well known, versus India, which tends to be much more collectivist society. And we wondered whether this would influence the privacy concerns. As predicted, we found that living in India is positively and significantly associated with being more comfortable with the practice of social media job screening. We also asked, do women react to the practice of social media screening differently than men? And even though some previous research suggests that women generally have higher privacy concerns in the context of social media use, our research surprisingly evidence's no significant relationship between gender and comfort with social media screening. So what this means is that, in this context of social media screening, there may be some universal expectations and universal concerns that are regardless of one's gender.

Nadine Habib:

And what type of advice would you offer to students about their social media presence as they begin applying for jobs?

Jenna Jacobson:

I think it's important not to build into some of the fear-mongering, which is often associated with social media. But it's important for all people, not just students, to feel empowered with their social media data. So what data do you want to share? What data do you not want to share publicly? And going on the job market is a good opportunity to take the time and check your privacy settings and engage in some online reputation management. In a report that's going to be released, the Social Media Lab, we found that young people are most aware of their privacy settings on social media, which is a positive sign, but the onus also shouldn't just rely on young job applicants. There is a larger privacy conversation that needs to be had, and one of the recommendations that we put forward is that a progressive step may be that companies can publicly identify and warn job applicants if they're going to be engaging in social media screening.

We're already seeing some of this in Europe and the reality is that people tend to have less concerns when they know that ... When companies are asking for people's permission. So while social media can be used to verify job applicants information, it also gives employers an unprecedented opportunity to examine the personal lives of job applicants. And I think that there really needs to be some checks and balances here. But until that time comes, job applicants need to be aware of the reality that you will be Googled.

Nadine Habib:

And so what does that look like? If a company were to say, we're going to screen you, we're going to screen your social media platforms, is that right on the job posting? It's at the very bottom, something-

Jenna Jacobson:

I think the idea of publicly disclosing that an employer is going to be engaging in social media screening gives a job applicant the opportunity to one, decide whether that is a job that they want to apply to, and two, it also gives them the opportunity to look back at their digital footprint and perhaps make those edits, make those deletes in order to put their best foot forward. In order for them to present themselves in a way that is aligned with the job that they wanted to get.

Right now you would just have to, perhaps, assume, guess, not really know what is happening on the other end. So having that disclosure right up front is a first step towards transparency in the job hiring process.

Nadine Habib:

I guess students could even spin it to their own advantage in that they could even fake it. Fake the funk with making their social media presence a certain way, I guess, in order to get a job. Is that something that you think could occur?

Jenna Jacobson:

I think that the strategic use of social media is something that is already happening. I wouldn't say that it's necessarily a fake profile, but we're always choosing which sides of our personality, which sides of our experiences, we choose to highlight. In our traditional pen and paper resume, we're showing our education, our experiences, all of the positive attributes that employers would be interested in seeing. And in much the same way social media can be used in that way, we can strategically put forward our best foot, can strategically identify the projects that we've been engaged in in our undergraduate experience, our work experiences, some of the things that make us a desirable job candidate. So I think that we're already doing that in some ways, there is that strategic use of social media and we may be seeing more of that as time goes on as well.

Nadine Habib:

Interesting. And how about when you actually get the job? Should you still be aware of your Internet profile? Or is it when you get the job you're like, okay, I can be myself now.

Jenna Jacobson:

There have been some high profile cases that have made headlines of people losing their jobs based on their social media activity. So it certainly can happen, depending on the industry. But I think it's important not to lose track of the many ways that people actually use social media. For example, when I shared the news of my new tenure track position at the School of Retail Management on social media, I received hundreds of comments from colleagues and friends on social media. But that was publicly and purposefully shared. I wanted to share that piece of information. So it's really about being purposeful about whether, and what, you want to share on social media. So on a positive side, being aware of your online profile, even after you get the job, is a good idea because social media is also being used by organizations for active recruiting.

What I mean by this is that companies are actively looking for new talent and they find out about individuals on social media platforms like LinkedIn. So even when you have a job, social media is a tool that you could use to help advance your career if, you choose to, by showcasing your work, your experiences, your talents, and inserting yourself into a conversation in the industry that all of your choosing. But social media, it requires time. It requires dedicated time and effort, which is something that many people struggle with as we live in a perpetual culture of busy-ness. So I think that social media is a choice and it's one that we need to purposefully make.

Nadine Habib:

Thank you so much, Jenna, that was great.

Jenna Jacobson:

Thank you so much for having me.

Nadine Habib:

Like Nobody's Business is a presentation of Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management. For more information about TRSM visit ryerson.ca/tedrogersschool. Thank you for listening.