Is ‘Cybervetting’ Impacting Your Chances at a Job? Here’s What You Need to Know

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It’s a common trope at dinner tables and family gatherings all over the country. Mom, dad, grandma or grandpa lecturing the younger members of the family on how much harder life was “back in my day.” From walking to school each morning in the freezing cold to descriptions of weekends long past spent entirely screen-free, older generations often enjoy pointing out the ease of modern life in comparison to decades ago.
Such sentiments are usually warranted, and in most cases probably accurate; modern living is undeniably cushier than in the past. We’ve never had more entertainment, options, and services at our fingertips.
All that being said, though, young adults trying to find professional success in 2021 face a unique set of considerations that their parents and grandparents never had to worry about. Case in point: the now very common practice among employers of “cybervetting” potential job candidates’ online presence during the hiring process. 
Today, thanks to social media, all it takes is one embarrassing photo taken a decade ago, or a poorly-worded status update from 2014 to disqualify an individual from a job opportunity. Is that fair? It’s a complicated question.
If a job candidate’s online presence is filled with violent, misogynistic, or discriminatory language, that should absolutely prevent the person from being hired, and justifiably so.
But, what about less cut and dry cases? Should HR professionals be passing moral judgments on job candidates just because of what may or may not be available online about them?
Researchers from North Carolina State University investigated this nuanced topic by surveying 61 HR professionals on their usual cybervetting practices. All in all, that investigation led the study authors to conclude that cybervetting does introduce several irrelevant biases and moral judgments into the hiring process.
“The study drives home that cybervetting is ultimately assessing each job candidate’s moral character,” says Steve McDonald, corresponding study author and a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “It is equally clear that many of the things hiring professionals are looking at make it more likely for bias to play a role in hiring.”
Probably the most common concern among job candidates regarding their online presence is pictures of partying or drinking. Years ago, teens and college kids didn’t think twice about documenting their wild nights on social media. Fast forward to today, and there’s an entire generation of job seekers hoping recruiters and hiring managers don’t ask them about a keg stand from 2008.
The thing is, though, drinking alcohol isn’t exactly an unusual habit. If anything, too many working adults drink alcohol far too often. So, why is it that employers care about old party photos? Study authors say it isn’t so much about the actual act of drinking, but how that action is being displayed.
“One of the things that cropped up repeatedly was that cybervetting not only judges people’s behavior, but how that behavior is presented,” says Amanda Damarin, study co-author and an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “For example, one participant noted that his organization had no problem with employees drinking alcohol, but did not want to see any photos of alcohol in an employee’s social media feed.”
“There’s a big disconnect here. One the one hand, HR professionals view social media as being an ‘authentic’ version of who people really are; but those same HR professionals are also demanding that people carefully curate how they present themselves on social media,” she continues.
Moreover, what does any of this have to do with actual job performance? Researchers say HR professionals rarely gain any insight into job competencies from searching through old social media posts. Instead, most focus on subjective measurements of what they believe makes a good job candidate.
“It was also clear that people were rarely looking for information related to job tasks – a point some study participants brought up themselves,” McDonald adds. “And the things they did look for reflected their explicit or implicit biases.”
For example, some surveyed HR workers told researchers they look for online posts about hiking or spending time with family during Christmas as indicators of a well-rounded individual. The obvious inherent biases in such an approach aren’t hard to see. What about people who aren’t Christian? Or those who go to the gym instead of out for a hike? If someone is supremely qualified for a particular job they still won’t be hired because they don’t like to go hiking? Not to mention all of the job candidates who do like hiking and just don’t post about it on social media.
Similarly, most HR professionals said they favor candidates who show an active lifestyle on social media. This discriminates against handicapped, disabled, and older job seekers.
In many ways, the current online landscape represents a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” problem. The wrong picture posted online can cost you your dream job, but many HR recruiters admit that if an individual doesn’t have any online presence at all it’s considered a “red flag.”
None of this is universal either. What one recruiter may focus on another will shrug off. All of this leaves job seekers woefully in the dark about what image they should be displaying online.
“Some workers have a social media profile that sends the right signals and can take advantage of cybervetting,” McDonald comments. “But for everyone else, they are not only at a disadvantage, but they don’t even know they are at a disadvantage – much less why they are at a disadvantage. Because they don’t necessarily know what employers are looking for.”
Should cybervetting be done away with completely? Probably not. As mentioned earlier, in many cases a proper “online audit” can help eliminate problematic candidates. However, it is very clear that a set of guidelines or rules should be put in place to ensure individual biases don’t muddy the hiring waters.
The full study can be found here, published in Socio-Economic Review.
— John Anderer
This article originally appeared on Ladders.