In this age of social media, it’s becoming routine for employers to check the social media accounts of job applicants. But doing so runs the risk of alienating potential employees, according to new research from N.C. State University.

The screening makes it harder for employers to attract top job candidates. In some cases, the screening even increases the chances that job candidates take legal action against a company, researchers said.

“The recruiting and selection process is your first indication of how you’ll be treated by a prospective employer,” says Will Stoughton, a Ph.D. student at NCSU and lead author of a paper describing the research. “If elite job prospects feel their privacy has been compromised, it puts the hiring company at a competitive disadvantage.”

Two studies conducted by researchers returned similar results. In the first study participants who applied for a job online were told that their Facebook accounts had been reviewed for “professionalism,” and a hiring decision was forthcoming.

Two thirds of the 175 participants reported finding the prospective employer less attractive because they felt the Facebook screening was an invasion of privacy that reflected poorly on the company.
The second study asked participants to envision a hypothetical scenario in which a prospective employer reviewed their Facebook profiles for professionalism. Half of the 208 participants were asked how they’d respond if they had gotten the hypothetical job. The other half were asked how they’d respond if they hadn’t gotten the job.

The job offer made little difference, with 60 percent of participants in both groups reporting a negative view of the potential employer due to a sense of having their privacy violated. Also, 59 percent of participants in the second study said they were significantly more likely than a control group that wasn’t screened to take legal action against the company for invasion of privacy. That question wasn’t included in the first study.

“This research tells us that companies need to carefully weigh whatever advantage they believe they get from social media screening against the increased likelihood of alienating potential employees,” says Dr. Lori Foster Thompson, a professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper. “Elite job prospects have options, and are more likely to steer clear of potential employers they don’t trust.”

The paper, “Examining Applicant Reactions to the Use of Social Networking Websites in Pre-Employment Screening was published online in the Journal of Business and Psychology.