Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought in-person business to a screeching halt, the workplace has never looked so different. An increase in social media use over the course of the pandemic has been met with an increase in the number of employers embracing social media screening—often dubbed “cybervetting”—in the workplace. According to Inc. Magazine, 54% of employers have eliminated a candidate purely based on their social media profiles. Employer searches of social media profiles aim to answer the question of what kind of story an applicant’s social media presence tells—what does their Instagram say about their character, about whether or not they are a good fit for the position? Can one out-of-date tweet cost you a job?
Red flags like sharing provocative content, discriminatory views toward marginalized groups, and false presentation of qualifications can immediately cross someone off the list of potential candidates for employment. Without denying the validity of these red flags deemed by employers as deal-breakers, one must ask how these seemingly innocent Google searches toy with one’s expectation of privacy. As it stands, employers do not have to disclose to their applicants that they will engage in cybervetting; they invade an applicant’s privacy in an online environment the applicant somewhat expects to be private. I would argue that social media cybervetting intended to screen for extremes like hate speech or illicit activity unnecessarily discriminates against perfectly qualified candidates. In using one’s private social media profiles as a measuring stick for how they will perform in a professional environment, companies run the risk of making assumptions about applicant identity.
Justification for cybervetting relies on the assumption that what is private is public. Every bit of information shared online is another data point to be interpreted and quantified by friends, followers, the networking platforms themselves, and therefore, employers too. According to the American Bar Association, for this reason, “social media is not simply a collection of online places that allow private information to escape… social media sites are organized to draw as much participation and information out of us as possible.” The very structure of social media incentivizes information-gathering, making it easier for a hiring professional to access random personal information from all corners of the internet. If anything posted in cyberspace is no longer “private,” then using social media data to vet job applicants seems like a no-brainer. Even if an HR professional is not the intended viewer for Twitter likes or Instagram stories, if they can view publicly accessible information that any individual could reach with a simple Google search, why shouldn’t they? After all, what’s stopping them?
As someone who has applied for a host of jobs and internships over the last few years, the thought of a stranger scrolling through my Facebook posts or Instagram profile is disconcerting at best. Sure, most of my profiles are private and free of “disagreeable” content, but the nature of cybervetting as a hunt for negatives raises questions about what employers are really looking for. As a college student, my social media accounts look vastly different from those of a working professional because, quite simply, I am in college. I can’t help but wonder if a social media profile saturated with photos of my college friends and me lowers my chances of being hired. The personal narrative I share on Facebook or Instagram fundamentally diverges from the kind of content I would share on a resume or LinkedIn. Just as snapshots of professional or academic achievements have no place on my Instagram, photos of me on vacation or with friends and family have no place in a job application.
And yet this is precisely what cybervetting does: it incorporates the personal into the professional. What goes from a search to rule out evidence of hate speech or illicit activity morphs into an exploration of the minute details of one’s personal life. Personally, I would prefer not to be investigated, but I know I do not always have that prerogative. The internet is public domain, so how much a hiring aid can find out about me relies on how public or private I make that information.
While, by law, employers cannot reject candidates based on protected identifiers like race, gender, disability, and religion, much of this information is readily available on social media. One can’t “unsee” one’s identity after investigating it, raising the question of whether cybervetting can be performed without underlying biases. The inherent subjectivity of screening applicant’s social media profiles, then, overly relies on personal biases of the individual performing the screening. To again cite the ABA, “The bikini-clad body that is perfectly appropriate on the beach at St. John or Captiva may undermine the respect an employee has worked hard to earn from superiors, subordinates, and peers at the office.” Choosing not to hire someone because of a quick beach snapshot unnecessarily misconstrues the applicant’s identity as rooted in their private life, failing to understand their role in a professional setting. To not hire someone because of discriminatory opinions is one thing, but to not hire them for seemingly harmless reasons like bikini photos, spelling errors, or “too many selfies or food pictures” is another. “Just because your Twitter feed is full of four-letter words,” director of an association of HR professionals David D’Souza notes, “doesn’t necessarily mean you would conduct yourself that way in a meeting.”
Perhaps what is most troubling about surges in “cybervetting” is that the pivot toward social media screening coincides with a trend toward increased openness and personal expression online. In other words, with users sharing more information about their private lives, the line between public and private further blurs. It has become more socially acceptable to share more opinions, more skin, and more “you” online, yet it’s simultaneously become more normalized to cross a candidate off the list for these same behaviors. Aside from obvious turn-offs, it seems impossible to project what kind of content is discouraging from a hiring professional’s point of view.
Conducting social media screening in an ethical manner seems inconceivable. Seeing that the use of cybervetting will only continue to increase, delving into how this practice can be fair to all applicants is of grave importance. It is a must that companies disclose to their applicants that they will engage in this form of screening.
The question of how to eliminate bias from the cybervetting process, on the other hand, is not so simple. Candidates are extremely unlikely to know they have been excluded from recruiting because of something as inconsequential as an Instagram post. Nonetheless, the acknowledgement that qualified candidates can be taken out of consideration for positions they deserve comes with the acceptance of the unfair nature of the entire job search process.
As job applicants ourselves, the only way to truly protect our privacy in a world where any remnant of privacy is scarce is to make our social media profiles as private as possible, reducing the amount of fodder available for an HR professional. Googling yourself can give you a good idea of what’s out there, allowing you to work backwards in privatizing what is public. Although I cringe at the image of an employer scanning my online presence for inappropriate content, we now live in a world where this is statistically probable once you press “submit” on that job application.
By Sophie Johnson
Illustration by Vy Nguyen