Job Seekers: Five Ways Employers Are Looking You Over Online

AUSTIN, Texas — May 14, 2014 — Employers evaluating job candidates' online information appear to be seeking those who behave like politicians – carefully managing their online personality, endorsements, public image and private life, according to research from the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.

Assistant Professor Brenda Berkelaar and Moody College doctoral students Josh Scacco and Jeffrey Birdsell believe this shift is problematic for several reasons, such as employers making incorrect assumptions from online information and employees feeling compelled to manage their online profiles to serve professional goals exclusively.

Based on interviews and responses from 59 hiring managers, which the team analyzed earlier this year for their academic journal article, "The Worker as Politician" (in the OnlineFirst edition of New Media & Society), the researchers see five characteristics that employers appear to be seeking when they go online to evaluate job candidates:

  1. An electable personality – Employers want to see online posts, pictures and other information highlighting a personality defined by creativity, curiosity, friendliness, stability and initiative. Employers also asserted that someone's physical appearance and photos will help determine an interview.

    This trend is problematic, because it could violate EEOE guidelines that prohibit employers from asking for applicant photographs and discriminating on the basis of race, sex, national origin, age and religion.

  2. Implied or explicit online endorsements – Just as people judge politicians by their associations, employers judge potential hires by their online associations and endorsements.

    This is an issue, researchers say, because employers judge potential hires on their online connections without questioning the nature of those connections. People have a wide range of reasons for forming online connections, and they may have important connections who are not visible online.

  3. A commercially "sanitized" public image – Employers expect job candidates to show an awareness of an audience that might be larger than just close friends. They expect job candidates to demonstrate "a consistent, professional presentation, that cuts across social media."

    Employers wanted to see "some" but not "too much personal information" online, an expectation that could discourage employees from potentially beneficial non-work interactions on social media. On the other hand, employers said that missing, incomplete or negative information could constitute a "red flag." Unfortunately, job applicants might not have access to the teams of experts that help manage and shape a politician's image – a reputation management process that requires technical and communication competencies.

  4. The "right kind of private life" – Employers consistently wanted to know how job candidates spend their personal time. Employers generally reported expecting "acceptable… professional interests," such as wine or cooking. If their interests include "beer pong" or if "someone is clearly obsessed with cats," that is a problem, employers said. Employers also preferred candidates who established a "clear line between personal and professional interests," keeping inappropriate photos unavailable.

    Researchers say this is problematic, because workers might be judged negatively for posting about non-work interests that do not align with employer’s interests and may not be related to employment success.

  5. Mainstream values – Like political candidates, job applicants are expected to model mainstream values for work, life and friendships. "Hedonistic value expressions" and negative posts online disqualified applicants, as did expressing spirituality "too strongly." Employers inferred values from photos, social network postings and online interactions.

Researchers say this encourages self-censorship, giving the employer control over a potential hire’s non-work life. Such evaluations also have EEOC implications because employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion.

Increasingly, "employers view employees as extensions of company brands, a perspective similar to popular expectations that elected officials are a reflection of their public office." According to this preliminary research, responses suggest that applicants’ “online information should convey a pious, almost puritanical image, evidencing professionalism and responsibility, and – as repeatedly noted – the 'right kind of private life,'" Berkelaar said.

Berkelaar said she hopes awareness of this politicization could encourage employers to consider alternative lenses for evaluating online information; or to consider not searching online for information about workers.

Contacts: Laura Byerley, (512) 471-2182; Brenda Berkelaar, (512) 471-5251.

Marc Speir
Senior Content Producer