Social Media Vetting: Proposed Standards (Long)

Hiring managers and human resources people search the internet for indications about a candidate’s personality, character, opinions, and human failings – and then are shocked and horrified to discover candidates have personalities, characters, opinions, and human failings.

The buzz in recruiting these days is Social Media.  People are on it sharing information about themselves and their lives as a way to keep friends and family updated; bloggers opine on everything under the sun among other content they post – and tweeters tweet, well, lots.  Recruiters post jobs on it and look for potential candidates, and also use the information people put out for others to see as another tool to vet those potential candidates.  The advice given to job seekers by universal consensus is to avoid any picture or post that might be considered controversial; pictures of parties and drinking, as well as those of a potentially-prurient nature, are particularly mentioned among the verboten.

I recently saw a picture tweeted by a person so well-known in the Recruiting industry they write a column for a national magazine!  They and two others were at a party; alcohol was shown and all were having a good time.  So I asked a simple question: was this a picture that might be viewed negatively by a potential employer.  I believed it was a legitimate question considering the expertise of the person.  The picture and the tweet vanished; my question was answered by the action.

The New Puritanism*


I’ve written several essays about the use of Social Media (SM) to vet candidates during the hiring process (here, here, and here, with one more mentioned below).  Among myriad posts by others, such as ­Social Media in hiring – You can run but you can’t hide, is a universal caution to job seekers that what they post might rule them out a priori.  The phrase “use of social media to vet candidates” gets millions upon millions of google hits.

The practice of close scrutiny of social media profiles is creating such a terror of any exposure of anything adverse that it threatens to suppress the very utility of using such media to vet people as candidates censor themselves to avoid controversy.

In my last essay on the topic, posted on, I threw out the idea that some standards should be set when looking at a potential candidate’s social media presence.  To my surprise, nothing was forthcoming in the comments.  Thus, please indulge me in voicing some thoughts here.

Venue Matters

LinkedIn is the default location for people networking for work, and for a person’s professional on-line presence in general.  Therefore standards should be high; no drinking, no buddy arm-in-arm pictures, no unprofessional outfits, and so on.  Inappropriate pictures/content here should receive the highest level of concern.  I have seen pictures of both men and women whose appropriateness for LinkedIn I would question; in the case of one young woman to whom I am connected, I pointed this out and they changed their picture.

Likewise, a blog or twitter account devoted to building up one’s reputation as an expert in a field should also have a strictly professional picture and well-written, well-thought out posts (I try!); insights into personality and humor are fine, but again – are they reasonable?

By contrast, what people post on facebook and other locations should be cut a great deal of slack.  Similarly, a blog or twitter account devoted to a person’s personal interests, life, and thoughts should be cut similar slack.  These are, by definition, sites that are not directly related to a person’s professional image, and often are used to communicate with friends and family preferentially.  Especially as privacy settings and defaults can change at the provider’s whims, I believe it should be hard to hold things posted here against them unless they’re truly egregious.

And consider politics: letters to the editor and other posts are, by definition, taking a side on something.  With America split roughly 50-50 Left/Right, odds are good someone out there will be of the opposite view.  I have opined before that this country needs informed and involved citizens; so long as the arguments are well-written and calm, this should be a non-issue.  Indeed, I’d preferentially hire someone who wrote a lot, even if I disagreed, if their writing showed strong writing and argumentation skills.

Context Matters

If someone goes to a party, and posts pictures of themselves at said party drinking on facebook, their personal blog, or tweets them out … so what?  (Which means the picture I questioned earlier is, in my book, completely fine!)  If someone goes to the beach and posts pictures of themselves in a bikini, or Speedo… so what?  Isn’t that what one does and wears in that kind of situation?  I believe the absolute, basic question is simple: Given the circumstance / environment of the picture, is the behavior and dress appropriate for that situation?  If it is, move on.

Volition Matters

It is possible for a person to have their picture taken, especially in a social setting, and have that photo “tagged” by the person taking the picture.  The picture is not taken at their request, the tag is not added by their request and they might not even know it was done.  If they’re guilty of something, it’s of being out in public and not running and hiding from anyone with a camera.  For example, a networking party’s website has a picture of a person drinking, tagged with their name; that’s very different from a person posting that on their personal blog article about the party which, citing venue, is different than their using that picture for their LinkedIn profile.

Generation Matters

A networking colleague of mine commented about this post Why I Just Quit My Job at Apple; his comment was very astute:

There are no hard lines, but I would venture to say that the more elder readers here would be appalled that the writer cut and ran with no notice. The more recent grads would be appalled that he stayed as long as he did and left so quietly.

He is absolutely correct.  The younger one is, the more natural sharing information on social media is perceived.  Hiring managers and HR would do well to adapt to that new reality in considering the exposure people give themselves in their varied social media presences.  Just as older job seekers are expected to have developed some level of “tech savvy”, some level of adaptability needs to be inculcated in hiring managers to take into account the approximate generation of the candidate and, by extension, their sense of comfort in such sharing.  (For example, I’d be far less concerned about seeing a 20-something person hoisting a beer at a party with eyes, face, and posture showing some level of intoxication – it’s a party and they’re in their 20s, for crying out loud! – than I would seeing that same three-sheets-to-the-wind expression in a 50-something person… both from a maturity standpoint as well as thinking “You posted this publically?  Really?”)

Confirmation Matters

My own name is common.  Even names that are foreign (to the US, at least) are not necessarily uncommon as one might think.  If a search on google or bing turns up something of potential concern, it is incumbent to verify that said material originates from the job seeker in question – including asking the person about it.

Learning and History Matter

A questionable picture, done years ago where they agree “I was an idiot to be doing that” is far, far different than a person who posts such an action from last weekend’s bash.  After all – the internet is forever – and there are probably things we’ve all done and posted that we wish we could take back now that we’re more aware, and hopefully wiser.  Again, it is incumbent to ask the person about it if they are under serious consideration.

Beyond the Pale

Certain posts and pictures and other information do cross the line into the no-way-would-I-hire-them category.  Racism and bigotry, clearly, are absolutely beyond the pale and posts denigrating others in that fashion should be viewed with great concern and given great weight.  Calls for or threats of violence also fall into this category.  Overt drug use or discussion of one’s drug habits, or other illegal activities, are obvious reasons for rejection.  The possibilities are legion.

The top disqualifier often listed is sexually-related material.  Speaking personally, were I to interview someone who had posed in Playboy or Playgirl, meh, that’s pretty tame (though it would be points in their favor if they mentioned a magazine appearance up front – even tame, that’s not the kind of thing you want to hear about through the rumor mill, especially after they’re on board).  Likewise, a topless or nude picture taken at a topless or nude beach might indicate some lack of judgment… there might be some giggle factor among co-workers, but it wouldn’t overly concern me.  (A personal experience: at one employer one very attractive secretary was discovered to have had a topless picture in a magazine.  Once discovered, everyone quickly had a copy, or at least had seen the picture… but, speaking for myself, the novelty soon wore off and it didn’t even come to mind when I talked with her – and, no, I didn’t keep a copy!)

However, were a candidate found to have had their own porn website, or have starred in actual pornography – no.  They might be a fine <job title> but the nature of their activity would quickly become known… pictures and video snippets would be circulated and the gossip mill would run overtime; unlike the above example of one mild picture, I don’t think the novelty would fade.  (E.g., consider the in-the-news-now story of a female college student, at a big-name school, who is financing her education by being an adult film actress and whose real name is now known.  Is there a single reader who thinks that she will ever be able to get a professional job or, if given one, be able to function among colleagues who will – doubtless universally – have seen excerpts of her, ah, performances?)

Killing the Golden Goose

Left unchecked, the New Puritanism will slowly dry up the flow of information as people clamp down on anything controversial.  Without standards for what is fair game – in terms of venue, content, etc. – job seekers will eventually censor themselves into dead silence.  In order for social media to remain viable as a vetting tool for the long-term, boundaries and standards need to be set and widely communicated as industry-wide policies.

This does not excuse stupidity, however.  Some discretion and thought needs to be given to posts by job seekers – but without the crushing fear that any stray thought or picture, especially in places where the ability to control the content doesn’t exist, might be taken as one data point that ruins their candidacy for an otherwise good-fit opportunity.

Let Slip the Dogs of Discussion

business conversations

I now throw the discussion over to others:

  • How can “thought leaders” in the industry develop and disseminate standards and guidelines for job seekers to keep in mind as they live lives not only in physical space, but in the new and shifting virtual world of social media?
  • Likewise, how can these thought leaders also convey and enforce a sense of tolerance and adaptability on the part of hiring managers and corporate HR people to use as they rifle through the information available, especially information people voluntarily post?

­I apologize for the length of this; there was a lot to cover.  I look forward to hearing from you.

* My thanks to Neil Patrick; he asked if “New Puritanism” was my own invention.  It is.  So… if you decide to use it, I’d greatly appreciate a pingback or other credit for it.


­© 2014, David Hunt, PE

6 thoughts on “Social Media Vetting: Proposed Standards (Long)

  1. I agree on the face of your criticism of a potential employer using social media as a factor in vetting applicants. Furthermore, it should only be an issue if an applicant is found to have lied about a specific action. By that, I mean own up to what you personally post, and no matter how “private” you set your account, if you post anywhere online just expect it to be seen. If you were drunk, 15 years ago, found nude, in the morning, on a beach and there are pictures… Just be able to laugh and say “… I remember that time (in my youth)- worst sun burn I ever had!”

    However, I do take issue with your statement about anyone having anything to do with the adult industry and not being able to be taken seriously. It depends on the job. If the job is teaching underage children, society probably will not accept them in the position. However, if the job is teaching college students about women’s rights it might be a different matter entirely. In fact, >90% of adult performers do not last in the industry for more than a few years. If I have an applicant, who is intelligent, capable and up front about their past, I would applaud their determination and effort to succeed… And, I’d probably hire them.

    You yourself are confusing social media and past employment. What questions you need to be asking are, if someone is posting sexual content, not as a paid performer, on social media – is it any better? Is it even relevant? Contextually, will their past actions adversely affect the perception of the business organization as a whole or are you not able to look at an applicant for what good they are capable of doing for an organization?

    If YOU take them seriously and if YOU lead by example, I believe that yes, that person will be able to function in and organization. If you are laughing at them, openly not giving them a chance and making a hostile environment for them, of course they will fail.

    1. First, thank you for a thoughtful comment!

      Second… yes, you are right, own up to it. If that picture of you (as you describe) is out there, not only own up to it, but if you know it’s on the first page of a google image search, proactively speak to it as you describe. YMMV on this technique, of course, but the two keys are 1) no surprises, and 2) it shows you’ve learned from things. NOBODY comes into this world with wisdom. We all make mistakes.

      Third, you raise a very thoughtful point about adult film stars. Let me address that.

      I am not biased against such actors in an a priori way. I would agree with you that if I were interviewing, say, an attractive young woman who made clear her past employment, how she’s moved past it, and so on, then I would not rule her out simply because of her past job. I was thinking more of a person who did such work, had their own website for a while, and then KEPT IT QUIET.

      Such pictures and film clips are “out there” and cannot be purged. Such pictures and clips would doubtless circulate and the “giggle factor” would be high. Whether that is appropriate is another matter, of course, and I would argue NO, it is NOT appropriate. This is not, or should not be, high school where people giggle and say “I saw your boobies!” But that is likely to happen. And imagine the blackmail possibilities if such an employee WERE trying to keep it quiet.

      THIS, not anything else, is why I would be hesitant to hire someone with such a background. But I thank you for bringing the topic up and adding to the conversation.

  2. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Judge not that you be judged. That’s the standard that anybody should take when looking at anybody’s social profile. I suspect though that there’s more going on to social media vetting than just finding possible drunken pictures. I suspect that the people doing the looking are looking for ideological purity, which of course is never possible.

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