Feature / News

Who’s Watching Your Keystrokes?

Internet Creeping Emerges As Potential Method of Evaluating Applicants in Competitive Job Market, College Admissions

 

Have you Googled yourself lately? If the answer is yes, you’re probably not the only one digging up the Internet’s version of your personal history.

From February 11 to March 6 of last year, a nationwide survey conducted by the employment website CareerBuilder.com found 39 percent of companies use social networking sites to research their job candidates. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of survey respondents said they do not check online profiles.

The survey’s findings suggest employers use social media to look into the applicants’ personality and behavior outside their job interview, helping them gauge how well the candidate can fit in with the company culture. Examples of content examined include the positive, such as conveyence of a professional image or display of creativity, and the negative — such as posting of provocative photos, bad mouthing previous employers or even alcohol and drug use.

But the ongoing trend is not a new one. In 2006, a survey by the private business network ExecuNet discovered 77 percent of corporate executives reported using social media sites to learn more about job applicants. A third of this 77 percent indicated that they found enough “digital dirt” to reject a potential candidate’s application.

In light of this, Bradley Shear, a Maryland attorney who specializes in social media law, said he cautions job-seekers from posting potential harmful content on their social media pages. Shear advised Congressional Representative Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in authoring the Social Network Online Protection Act, a bill forbidding institutions of higher education and employers from requesting access to student or applicant social network accounts. However, Shear said online content is never safe from employers’ eyes.

“Candidates for employment are being searched online all of the time,” Shear said. “Searching candidates online has become part and parcel of the hiring process, and there is nothing illegal about performing an Internet search about someone applying for a job, just like it is not illegal to ask for references and/or past employers to verify information about a candidate.”

But one of the difficulties that arise when employers Google names and online profiles of prospetive employees, according to Shear, is the growing prevalence of fake social media accounts. CNN reported in August 2012 that Facebook estimated there was about 83 million false Facebook accounts that year. Soon after, the United States Securities and Exchanges Commission filed a 2012 report identifying two problematic types of Facebook accounts: the “misclassified” and the “undesirable accounts” — the latter group being profiles that have violated any of Facebook’s terms of service policies.

Because of this, Shear said it is difficult for an employer to know whether the online identity found is the right identity. In this case, he said it is illegal in some states for employers to request applicants to verify their online identities. States prohibiting this practice are California, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan.

However, Shear said the law is not designed to protect people who abuse the freedoms inherent to the Internet.

“The law is meant to protect those going out of the way to protect their own privacy and not those who are careless online,” Shear said. “If someone is being careless, that is their own problem.”

Currently, many social media sites are taking a stand against the practice of employers using online profiles as a measure of one’s personal character. For example, Facebook — the largest social networking service worldwide — issued a statement in March 2012 condemning such activities.

“As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job,” the statement said. “And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with, just because that user is looking for a job,” according to the statement, which was authored by the company’s chief privacy officer, Eric Egan.

Scrutiny of applicants’ social media profiles does not only exist for employment purposes. Kaplan Test Prep recently released a summary of its survey of college admissions officers and found that 31 percent of respondents — a bump up from 26 percent last year — said they visited an applicant’s social networking page to learn more about them. In addition, 30 percent of admissions officers polled said they found online content that negatively impacted a student’s application.

In 2013, roughly 21.8 million high school graduates were expected to enroll in over 4,400 degree granting institutions in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With more students than ever enrolling in college, the big question becomes: Shouldn’t freshmen and transfer applicants be worried?

Christine Brown, Executive Director of Kaplan Test Prep’s College Prep Programs, said she believes otherwise.

“Students should be aware and careful, but not worried,” Brown said. “There is no reason to say that admissions officers are doing this for any nefarious reasons. They often do searches for themselves to see what people are saying about their schools.”

However, Brown said students must stay proactive about being responsible for maintaining and posting appropriate online content.

“Your social media presence is something that you have a lot of control over,” Brown said. “Students need to recognize that anything and everything they post online can be fair game — fairly or unfairly.”

But disquieting stories of students’ social media profiles harming them for job or school applications has prompted countless news sites to suggest students “clean up” their profiles during application season. In November 2013, the New York Times ran an article discussing an online profile situation gone wrong for a student applying to Bowdoin College in Massachusetts. The student attended an on-campus information session and later posted negative comments on Twitter about her fellow attendees. According to the article, her actions garnered criticism from Bowdoin’s Dean of Admissions, and she was denied admission to the university.

Despite such stories, Brown said the actual chances of a student being looked up for the sake of admissions are not necessarily high. She said application officers probably only do so if a student’s application contains different or unique elements, whether alarming or impressive.

“Generally, there needs to be a flag, something good or negative,” Brown said. “It could be anything.”

Furthermore, UC spokesperson Dianne Klein said the sheer number of applicants makes it unrealistic for admission officers to be browsing through online profiles on networks such as Facebook or Twitter. According to a 2013 information summary report offered through the UC Office of the President, 174,767 students applied to the UC for Fall 2013 — an increase of 8.6 percent from the number of fall applicants the year before. The report also stated these gains in admissions were being seen by all UC campuses, from Berkeley’s increase of 8.1 percent to Santa Cruz’s increase of 14.8 percent.

“We do not check applicants on social media,” Klein said in an email. “We simply have too many applicants to do that.”

Lisa Przekop, UCSB Director of Admissions, said reviewing social media content of applicants has never been a part of the admissions process.

“It has never been done at UC Santa Barbara. The only information used in our review of an applicant is the information they provide on the UC application,” Przekop said. “We would not have need to review social media profiles.”

But even when schools do opt to check students’ online profiles, applicants can protect themselves through various privacy options. Brown said applicants always have the choice to crack down on their privacy settings, or refuse to add “friends” and other connections they do not recognize.

“We encourage students to be aware that their digital footprint and online persona is part of their identity,” Brown said. “Also keep in mind that college admissions officers are just that: admissions officers. They aren’t privacy experts or sleuths. They don’t have magic passwords to open your private Facebook account or Twitter feed. They are overwhelmingly judging your application on the traditional factors like your GPA and SAT or SAT score.”

In the end, Brown said the choice of being careful lies with the students, saying it is their job to do the best they can in cleaning up their online footprints.

“We advise students to check their digital trails and keep them clean. Search yourself on Google, Bing and other search engines and clean up anything that doesn’t put you in a positive light,” Brown said. “Be smart and think about everything you post online before you do it. The Internet has a long memory.”

 

A version of this story appeared on page 5 of Wednesday, January 8, 2014′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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