Is it ever okay to 'socially stalk' new hires?

Social media expert Ysabel Gerrard discusses whether scouring the social media posts of new hires is a good idea.

Yugi the Giraffe - 17 June 2022

You're about to interview a job candidate, and their CV looks great. But you want to dig a little deeper.

It's tempting to trawl through their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account, to see how much you can find out about them as people. After all, where's the harm?

Legally, there's no problem here: it's information people have made available publicly, out of personal choice. But what about ethically? And is this practice actually effective from a business point of view?

To discuss this and other related issues, we recently invited Dr Ysabel Gerrard, a social media expert and lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield, to take part in a webinar hosted by YuLife Co-Founder and CTO, Josh Hart.

You can watch the full webinar here.

The problem of bias

So, should you 'socially stalk' your future hires? Rather than give a simple yes or no answer, Ysabel believes it's a very nuanced issue.

"On the one hand, I think it's understandable; it's human nature," she begins. "You're going to be working with this person, so you want to know what they're about. And interviews are so performative, they don't really reveal the 'real self. When you hire someone, you're taking a massive risk, and I think it's natural that if that information is there, you want to look at it."

An employer might want to know, for example, if someone was regularly making racist, sexist or homophobic comments online. "I'd understand that personally; I wouldn't want to work with someone like that myself," says Ysabel, but the problem comes when common sense starts to make way for more personal judgments.

"We're all subject to a range of unconscious biases," says Ysabel. "And that becomes a problem when an employee, for example, thinks: 'Oh, she's wearing a bikini in her profile picture. Does that mean we shouldn't take her seriously? Does that mean she loves herself?' And these kind of assumptions we make about people really shouldn't play into hiring decisions."

“Young people are very conscious that they don't want things to come back and bite them in later life – and that's shaping what they do online every day, even from a really young age."

Is it creepy?

As the above example shows, the idea of employers looking at candidates' social accounts can cross the 'creepy' line. Because even though such accounts are technically public, in reality people tend to see them as private.

An equivalent in the physical world might be a conversation you're having with your partner or friends around a pub or restaurant table. Logically, you know that strangers at other tables can probably hear every word you're saying. But if one of them suddenly stuck their oar into your conversation, uninvited, you'd probably see it as quite rude.    

For many, the same goes for social media. "Through my research, I've found that a lot of people feel like social media is very private to them, even if it is technically public," says Ysabel. "They've cultivated a community, and are embedded in certain social norms, so they feel like it's a personal space – they don't view it as fair game for public or employer consumption."

Is it effective?

'Social stalking' raises many ethical questions, but even putting those to one side for a moment, is it even effective as a business strategy?

One reason it may not be is that, according to Ysabel: "Students and young people are very much aware they are being watched on social media."

That's not entirely surprising. For over a decade now, schools, parents and carers have been constantly drilling into them the notion that: 'Once it's online, it's forever.' "Young people are very conscious that they don't want things to come back and bite them in later life – and that's shaping what they do online every day, even from a really young age. That doesn't just mean avoiding extreme things like offensive content; it also affects small micro details, such as what you're wearing in your profile picture."

In other words, while you might think you're discovering the 'authentic personality' of a potential job candidate, that may well not be the case. Looking at the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you may be seeing a version of the person that's just as curated as a CV or a job interview.

The real social action, it appears, is now happening elsewhere.

The rise of anonymity

"My research shows that young people are increasingly using pseudonyms or fake names on social media," reveals Ysabel. "Alternatively, they're also using totally anonymous apps."

That's no accident. "This is a direct result of how a lot of young people feel surveilled by those in authority, including potential employers," Ysabel explains. "It's not that they're doing anything bad, though: they just want a separate space to be themselves."

As a result, many young people now have social accounts where they don't use their real name, or post a profile picture. They're also using social apps like BeReal and Snapchat, where their posts automatically vanish after a short period, so there's no 'paper trail' for anyone to check up on.

"These are the places young people are actually hooked up to their friends," explains Ysabel. "And then they have more professional accounts, where they carefully curate what they post, and are basically sanitised versions of themselves. So if you're an employer stalking these accounts, I don't think you're going to get the 'real them' at all."

Conclusion

So let's return to the original question: should you look at potential hires' social accounts? From what we've heard so far, you might expect Ysabel's answer to be no. But perhaps surprisingly, it's a qualified yes.

Why? Well, so far, everything we've talked about has been assuming you're trying to catch people out; find a reason NOT to hire them.

But while Ysabel believes that approach is fraught with difficulty, she argues that there are also POSITIVE reasons to look through candidates' socials.

"There's a whole other aspect to this debate, which is: what if you look at someone's social media, and they're phenomenal at it?" she points out. "In 2022, that's a really valuable skill for them to have, which you can harness for the benefit of your business. So maybe we need to shift the discourse a little bit, and start thinking about that instead."

For more on the potential gains that employees with social skills can add to your business, read part two of our interview with Dr Ysabel Gerrard here...

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