Hold That Password: The New Reality of Evaluating Job Applicants

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While the value of that data may be apparent, it remains to be seen how social media should ultimately fit into some aspects of professional life. Take the less controversial practice of managers’ friending their colleagues through Facebook. Rothbard notes that this practice also creates numerous potential headaches. Two years ago, she and some colleagues did a series of interviews with 20 people at a variety of levels and in a number of different industries, and found that people were often unnerved friending either bosses or subordinates. “People felt very uncomfortable with crossing the private and professional boundary when it came to the hierarchy [within an organization],” Rothbard says. “They talked about friending their bosses with similar discomfort and language as they did when they spoke about friending their moms.”

Interestingly, Rothbard adds that the rules for social networking in the workplace may differ based on gender. She led a study of 400 students in which participants were shown Facebook profiles, told that the person was either a boss, a peer or a subordinate, and then asked to rate the individuals based on how likely they were to accept that person’s friend request. The findings: Female bosses with bare-bones profiles were less likely to be accepted than those who revealed more personal information, while the opposite pattern held for male bosses. “Women who have limited profiles are more likely to be shunned than the women who have a more active presence,” Rothbard notes. “People see them as cold. But male bosses who reveal less information are more likely to be accepted than those who reveal a lot of information.”

The increased scrutiny of people’s virtual lives may change the way individuals operate in the social networking realm. According to Rothbard, there are essentially four ways of dealing with privacy issues. There are those who control their list of friends carefully, rejecting friend requests from people with whom they don’t want to share personal information. Then there are those who accept virtually all requests, but are very careful about what they post, limiting that content to very safe, less revealing information. There is also a hybrid approach in which people use privacy settings to share some information with close friends and less sensitive material with others. And finally there is the “let it all hang out” crowd — those who are comfortable sharing all their information with a large group of close (and not so close) friends.

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Grant predicts that more people will opt for the more controlled, filtered approach as they realize their social media profile is being scrutinized by potential employers. “As employers gain this information, so do candidates,” Grant points out. “So candidates may use Facebook more carefully and remove the cues that are so valuable [to employers].” Soffer agrees that people will become much more careful about their social media personas. “There are ways around this,” Soffer says of the unwanted exposure of social media behavior. “One thing that could happen is people will start having two Facebook accounts.” One will be for close friends; the other, a more sanitized version for employers.

But there is always the potential that something posted for viewing by a small group of close friends on Facebook could get out into larger circulation. And for that reason, some argue that the risks of being active in the social media space outweigh the benefits. “If you are a CEO, or aspire to be a CEO or director of a public company, I think it makes sense to refrain from social networking,” notes Dennis Carey, vice chairman at Korn Ferry International. “There are other ways to communicate with employees and the outside world through properly controlled channels. Some of the messages that are conveyed can be misconstrued or taken out of context by a third party. “

The fear of a photo or comment made long ago coming back to haunt you is hardly unfounded. Because sites like Facebook are less than 10 years old, it is not certain how long someone’s social networking history will remain accessible. “It is unclear how long the information persists,” Hill says. “Firms have different privacy policies, and often privacy policies change over time. While there are policies that allow for deleting data you no longer want on the site, it is hard to guarantee that this information won’t live on a database somewhere.”

All the controversy worries some fans of the social media revolution. “I worry that there is already a sense right now that our participation online may come back to haunt us,” notes Chris Ridder, co-founder of the law firm Ridder, Costa & Johnstone LLP and a non-residential fellow at The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “It inhibits our ability to express ourselves. If we can only express public relations-like statements, it takes away a good bit of the utility of the Internet. I think it would be a shame if we were to lose the playful aspect of this new technology.”

Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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