Boise State on Business

Susan Park: Don’t rule out job applicants who post on drinking, drug use

Assistant professor of business law at Boise State’s College of Business and EconomicsJanuary 15, 2014 

A majority of employers in this country rely on social media and other online information when hiring new employees. As a result, many employers pass over applicants who display undesirable traits or behavior on their social media profiles. Perhaps your business is one of them. If so, you may want to reconsider this practice — or at least start doing it differently.

A fascinating study recently released from North Carolina State University suggests that many companies misunderstand online behavior. This means that they may overlook applicants who are actually well-suited for the job.

Consider the trait of conscientiousness. No doubt most employers value this trait in their employees and look for it in job applicants. According to the study, many employers assume that finding evidence of alcohol or drug use on an applicant's social media profile means that the applicant is not conscientious or self-disciplined.

Not necessarily. The study suggests that there is no correlation between conscientiousness and a person’s willingness to post his alcohol or drug use on Facebook. As the lead author of the study stated, “This means companies are eliminating some conscientious job applicants based on erroneous assumptions regarding what social media behavior tells us about the applicant.”

Companies that would prefer extroverted employees may be doing themselves an even bigger disservice if they rule out applicants who post about alcohol use on social media. According to the study, extroverts are significantly more likely to share their alcohol or drug use on Facebook.

The only area where researchers found a correlation between personal traits and online behavior related to people who insult others on Facebook or other social media. Conscientious people are unlikely to badmouth others, at least publicly through social media.

These results may be explained, at least in part, by generational differences. Young people generally have a different notion of online privacy than their older potential employers. Recent studies indicate that younger employees feel it is inappropriate for their employers to check their off-duty conduct on social media. They also do not believe that their online personas should be the basis of work-related decisions, despite the reality that employers do this all the time.

So what should interviewers look for on social media? Be on the lookout for applicants who:

• Lie about their qualifications.

• Bash previous employers.

• Post company secrets.

• Post racist, sexist, or other offensive comments or content.

• Upload photos showing themselves when drunk, or make references to illegal behavior.

What about current employees? What type of online off-the-job behavior requires action?

Monitoring social-media usage can be valuable. For instance, employers can sometimes find online evidence to determine whether employees’ workers compensation or Family and Medical Leave Act claims are valid.

Nonetheless, balancing the employer's legitimate interests with the employee's right to enjoy a private life can be difficult. The specific activities that might embarrass your particular business are too numerous to list here.

The best way to encourage the type of online behavior your company values and wants to encourage is to create and enforce a written social media policy. (Recent Boise State on Business columns addressed this topic.)

As always, when drafting employment policies or trying to determine how to manage employees within the boundaries of the law, consult with an HR professional or attorney.

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