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Employers Look at Wrong Things in Facebook Screening, Study Finds

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on July 03, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's pretty standard for employers to use Facebook for screening job applicants and cutting candidates they think have unsavory traits. But a new study from North Carolina State University shows that those companies may be missing the mark entirely and eliminating excellent job candidates.

The core of the problem, the study suggests, is a fundamental misunderstanding of online behavior.

Using a sample set of 175 people, researchers measured the personality traits that companies look for in job candidates, including conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion, according to the study’s press release.

The researchers then compared their real-life traits to their Facebook behavior. They noted which Facebook behaviors were linked to specific personality traits and the results are surprising — and worth mentioning to your HR department.

Alcohol and Drug Use

“Companies often scan a job applicant’s Facebook profile to see whether there is evidence of drug or alcohol use, believing that such behavior means the applicant is not ‘conscientious,’ or responsible and self-disciplined,” says Dr. Lori Foster Thompson, a professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the study.

Contrary to that assumption, the researchers found that there is no significant correlation between conscientiousness and an individual’s willingness to post content on Facebook about alcohol or drug use.

“This means companies are eliminating some conscientious job applicants based on erroneous assumptions regarding what social media behavior tells us about the applicants,” says Will Stoughton, a PhD student at NC State and lead author of the paper.

If your company is on the hunt for extroverts to fill social positions, like sales or marketing positions, your Facebook screening is particularly problematic.

The study found that extroverts were significantly more likely to post about drugs or alcohol on Facebook. So companies weeding out those applicants are likely to significantly limit the pool of job candidates who are extroverts.

This, of course, isn’t as much of a problem if there are plenty of extroverted fish in the sea who don’t make questionable posts.


Interestingly enough, the researchers did find one Facebook habit strongly correlated to the personality traits that employers look for. Study participants who rated high on both agreeableness and conscientiousness were also very unlikely to “badmouth” or insult other people on Facebook.

So if you find a job applicant who likes to talk smack on Facebook, that may legitimately raise a red flag for your company.

The Takeaway: Focus on the Gossip Mongers, Not the Booze Cruisers

“If employers plan to keep using social media to screen job applicants, this study indicates they may want to focus on eliminating candidates who badmouth others — not necessarily those who post about drinking beer,” Stoughton says.

It may be a generational gap. Many perfectly capable young people have a different notion of social media privacy and don’t seem to care if their social media profiles hurt their job prospects when they’re otherwise qualified for a job.

The study’s findings should give every in-house counsel pause to consider the company’s main objective for Facebook stalking potential applicants. The tactic may not be all that effective and present more legal liability than it’s worth.

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