Job seekers are routinely cautioned about their social media activity, lest a casual comment or picture catch the eye of a disapproving hiring manager quick to nix a questionable applicant.

But a new study from N.C. State University suggests that employers might actually be misreading these social media posts. They do so at their peril, said Lori Foster Thompson, an N.C. State professor of psychology and co-author of the study.

“Employers beware, when you screen people out based on what they say on Facebook, you may be screening out people that you want,” Thompson said.

Companies may view Facebook posts that involve drug or alcohol use as red flags suggesting that a person is irresponsible or not conscientious. But the study found no link between those perceived personality traits and a person’s willingness to post content about drugs or alcohol. In fact, those who are most willing to post such content tend to be outgoing people, the extroverts that many companies seek for sales or marketing positions. A paper explaining the study’s findings was published online in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Will Stoughton, a Ph.D. student at N.C. State, was lead author of the paper, which was co-authored by Thompson and Adam Meade, an associate professor of psychology at the university.

Focus on employers

Thompson said the motivation for the study was to provide offer insight into employer behavior because most studies on social media and employment focus on what applicants should do. The study did not analyze employers but in designing the study researchers gleaned from reports that suggested employers who look at applicant’s social media activity consider factors such as alcohol and drug use as well as badmouthing of employers, superiors or coworkers.

The study sample of 175 was comprised largely of N.C. State students, who were asked questions about the different types of content that they posted to Facebook, including drugs, pictures and remarks about previous employers. The study did not involve actually looking at the Facebook pages of the study subjects, instead relying on survey responses.

Thompson said the study focused on Facebook because the site lends itself to posting of pictures involving alcohol and drugs. LinkedIn was not considered because it is a site for professionals and employers expect job candidates will put their best foot forward there. Twitter activity was not studied, though Thompson said it could be part of a future research.

Some of the study findings were expected. People who badmouth previous employers or coworkers are generally less agreeable. But the study also found that people who are highly conscientious – making them good job candidates – are those who are just as likely to post photos about alcohol and drug use.

Regardless of the study’s findings, students should not take the results as an excuse to post all types of content on Facebook. Employers may not heed the warning that their inferences of social media could be wrong. In fact, Thompson says employers tend to overestimate their ability to size up people.Thompson said the standard precautions that job seekers hear about posting on social media still apply.

More social media research

Thompson is interested in conducting more research on perceptions of social media communications. Those studies could look at different demographics to see if there are generational differences. Research could also try to determine what kind of social media behavior is predictive of the kind of job performer someone will be. Thompson said it would also be good to expand the study to include other social media tools, such as Twitter.

Could this research be used in the professional world? Thompson, who has done consulting work in the public and private sectors, said she’s not aware of a lot of formal hiring guidelines in the corporate world. Hiring managers who look at job candidates’ social media track record do so on their own.

This N.C. State research could become the basis of a coding scheme for employers to score Facebook profiles in a more objective manner. Perhaps someday the research could become part of a software tool that could automate the analysis, even predicting what kind of performer someone will be. But it will take considerable work to get to that point and it will require a lot of human judgment first.

“We’re not there yet,” Thompson said.