In the article “Keep it Clean: Social Media Screens Gain in PopularityLinks to an external site.,” Saige Driver notes that it has become more and more common for employers to screen social media in addition to running background checks before making a job offer to candidates. While this has been upheld as a legal search, the ethics of doing so are somewhat up for debate. While social media has always been a public facing document (so to speak), many users utilize social media to give glimpses into their private lives and often have accounts that have been with them since they were very young. For this discussion post, I want you to either defend the practice of screening social media accounts as ethical or attack it as unethical. Is this fair to potential employees? Why or why not? Would you need to go through and delete a few things (and some pictures) before you went to get a job to make sure that your profile matched the “brand” of yourself that you presented in your job documents and during your interview? Utilize concrete examples to support your argument.
In recent years, the practice of screening social media accounts has gained popularity among employers as part of their pre-employment background check process. Saige Driver’s article “Keep it Clean: Social Media Screens Gain in Popularity” highlights this trend. While the legality of such screenings is well-established, the ethical implications of scrutinizing an individual’s online presence are a matter of ongoing debate. This essay explores the ethical dimensions of social media screening for job applicants and examines both sides of the argument. It will consider whether this practice is fair to potential employees, the reasons for or against it, and the necessity of aligning one’s online persona with their professional image.
The Ethical Dilemma
Screening social media accounts as part of the hiring process raises a fundamental ethical dilemma. On one hand, employers argue that it is a crucial step in assessing a candidate’s suitability for a position. It provides insights into an applicant’s character, values, and potential risks associated with their online activities. However, on the other hand, this practice can be seen as an invasion of privacy. When job seekers share personal moments, opinions, and experiences on social media, they may not anticipate their content being scrutinized by potential employers.
One of the primary arguments against social media screening is the invasion of privacy. Candidates use social media platforms as a means of personal expression and connection with friends and family. Employers accessing these accounts may stumble upon personal information that is not relevant to the job, such as an individual’s political beliefs, health conditions, or personal relationships. This intrusion can lead to biases and discrimination in the hiring process, raising ethical concerns. A study by Acquisti and Grossklags (2005) highlights the privacy risks associated with online information disclosure. They argue that social media users often underestimate the consequences of sharing personal data, as the boundaries between public and private information are blurred online. The ethical issue emerges when employers exploit this blurred line to make hiring decisions based on non-job-related personal information.
Transparency and Authenticity
On the contrary, supporters of social media screening argue that it promotes transparency and authenticity in the hiring process. They contend that individuals who maintain a professional and consistent online presence aligning with their job application and interview are more likely to be trusted by employers. This trust is seen as a valuable trait, particularly in positions that require responsibility and integrity. Additionally, a survey conducted by CareerBuilder in 2020 found that 70% of employers used social media to screen candidates, with 57% indicating that they were less likely to interview a candidate if they couldn’t find information about them online. This suggests that maintaining a well-curated online image can significantly impact a job seeker’s chances of being considered for a position.
The Fairness Issue
The question of fairness in social media screening is a central point of contention. Is it equitable to evaluate candidates based on their online personas, which may not fully represent their professional qualifications? To address this issue, it is essential to consider the potential impact of this practice on various groups, including minorities and individuals with unconventional personal lives. Studies by Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) have shown that name-based discrimination in the hiring process is already prevalent. The inclusion of social media screening may exacerbate this issue, as it provides additional opportunities for conscious or unconscious bias. Consequently, some argue that this practice is inherently unfair, as it further disadvantages already marginalized groups.
Managing Online Presence
Given the prevalence of social media screening, job seekers face the challenge of managing their online presence. It is not uncommon for candidates to review and adjust their social media profiles before applying for jobs to ensure alignment with their professional image. This raises the question of whether such efforts are ethical or merely a survival strategy in a competitive job market. Applicants who choose to delete or edit content on their profiles may be seen as inauthentic or even deceitful by some employers. This creates a dilemma for job seekers, who must balance their desire to maintain privacy and personal expression with the need to present a polished image to potential employers.
The Role of Context
The ethicality of social media screening largely depends on the context in which it is applied. For certain positions, such as those in public relations, marketing, or roles that require handling sensitive information, employers argue that understanding an applicant’s online behavior is critical. These roles demand a high degree of professionalism and discretion, and assessing a candidate’s online presence can help evaluate their ability to uphold these standards. In a study by Duggan and Smith (2013), it was found that 37% of employers used social media to screen candidates to determine their qualifications for the job. For these employers, social media provided valuable insights into an applicant’s communication skills, creativity, and overall professionalism. In such contexts, the ethical argument in favor of social media screening becomes more pronounced.
Potential for Discrimination and Bias Mitigation
Critics of social media screening often point out that it can lead to discrimination and bias in the hiring process. However, proponents argue that when done responsibly, it can help mitigate these issues. To address this, employers can establish guidelines that focus solely on job-relevant information, while disregarding personal attributes and irrelevant data. Moreover, training hiring personnel to identify and eliminate bias when conducting social media screenings is crucial. Another study by Pager and Quillian (2005) suggests that subtle biases in the hiring process may be alleviated by introducing objective criteria in the evaluation of candidates. In this context, social media screening could be considered ethical if it is used to verify job qualifications and to eliminate subjective biases in hiring decisions.
Transparency and Expectation Management
A key element of ethical social media screening is transparency. Employers must communicate their intent to screen candidates’ online profiles as part of the hiring process. This transparency allows applicants to have a fair understanding of the evaluation criteria and encourages them to maintain a professional online presence from the outset. Moreover, some organizations go a step further by providing guidelines on what is considered acceptable behavior on social media. For instance, they may advise employees not to engage in online harassment, hate speech, or disclose confidential company information. Such guidelines can serve as a proactive approach to maintaining professionalism and ethics on social media.
The Global Perspective
The debate surrounding the ethics of social media screening is not limited to one country or region. It is a global issue with varying cultural and legal implications. Different countries have distinct privacy laws and norms regarding the collection of personal information. Thus, the ethicality of social media screening can be influenced by the legal and cultural context in which it is practiced. For example, European Union countries have stringent data protection regulations under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These regulations place restrictions on the collection and processing of personal data, potentially making social media screening more challenging from a legal and ethical standpoint.
Alternative Assessment Methods
While social media screening can provide insights into an applicant’s character and behavior, it is not the only method available. Employers have various tools at their disposal to assess a candidate’s qualifications and suitability for a position. These include traditional methods such as interviews, reference checks, and skills assessments. Using a combination of these methods can reduce the reliance on social media screening, which can be invasive. For example, reference checks allow employers to gather insights from individuals who have worked with the candidate in a professional capacity, offering a more direct and job-related assessment.
In conclusion, the ethical dimensions of screening social media for employment are multifaceted. On one hand, privacy concerns and the potential for bias and discrimination make a compelling case against this practice. On the other hand, it can promote transparency and authenticity, which are valued traits in many job roles. The fairness issue is pivotal, as social media screening can either level the playing field or exacerbate existing inequalities in the job market. Moreover, job seekers are compelled to navigate the delicate balance between privacy and professionalism by managing their online presence. Ultimately, finding an ethical balance in social media screening may require a combination of stricter guidelines for employers, a greater emphasis on job-relevant content, and a concerted effort to reduce biases in the hiring process. As the use of social media in recruitment continues to evolve, addressing these ethical concerns is crucial to ensure that individuals are not unfairly disadvantaged or discriminated against based on their online presence.
Acquisti, A., & Grossklags, J. (2005). Privacy and rationality in individual decision making. IEEE Security & Privacy, 3(1), 26-33.
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013.
CareerBuilder. (2020). Social Media Screening Continues to Gain Popularity.