The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

James Melton, Robert Miller, Brent Jensen: Platform Assumptions: Perceptions of Social Media Participation and Non-Participation in Hiring Decisions

James Melton, Central Michigan University

Robert Miller, Central Michigan University

Brent Jensen, Central Michigan University

Internet platforms such as LinkedIn increasingly facilitate professional connections and, as such, play an important role in the hiring process. Likewise, job candidates’social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites may also be considered. Although the legality of this kind of scrutiny varies by jurisdiction, job seekers must assume that, in practice, the entirety of their social media presence may be examined. In this environment, job seekers have several options: 1) work to create a positive social media image by attempting to delete potentially damaging content while adding professionally appealing content; 2) leave content as it is and hope employers do not discover damaging content; or 3) disengage from social media by deleting accounts or not setting them up in the first place.

Despite profound professional consequences, how potential job seekers view these options is not well understood. University students, one of the main groups attempting to apply for jobs in this environment, are some of the most ardent users of social media, and yet their own decision-making milieu largely remains a mystery. When these individuals are on the job market, how do they view their own participation or non-participation in social media sites? What assumptions do they believe are being made about them as social media users, and how do they believe these assumptions will affect hiring decisions? These questions are important to consider because they can help policy makers, educators, and employers take effective actions to support sound and ethical behavior on all sides in the hiring process.

In order to address these questions, an exercise was developed to observe attitudes about posting behaviors on social media sites and to help participants become more self-aware about their social media presence. In the exercise, each participant was asked to play the part of a hiring manager and to rank three potential candidates for an internship. By playing this role, participants would engage in the hiring process from employer’s side and envision the role of social media in their own prospects as a job candidate.


The study sample was drawn from an introductory business course offered to undergraduate students attending a large university in the Midwestern United States. Participants were given a resume for each candidate, along with a short summary of each candidate’s social media profile, as prepared by a hypothetical human resources department. The candidates were intentionally created with very similar educational qualifications and work histories. The only major distinguishing factor on the resumes was the candidates’GPAs, which varied slightly. The candidates’social media summaries were considerably more diverse. Candidate 1’s summary included references to posts in his profile about excessive partying, along with a report of occasional gender and racial slurs. Candidate 2’s summary noted that he had no social media presence. Candidate 3’s summary noted that he was an active social media user and that his posts mostly involved the student organization that he was a member of and the activities that the organization promoted.

In addition to ranking the job candidates in order of preference, participants were asked to explain in written comments why they ranked each candidate as they did. Written content was coded and analyzed to determine major patterns and themes in the participants’evaluations of the hypothetical job candidates.


The greatest divergence occurred in participants’speculation about why Candidate 2 did not have a social media profile, along with other inferences about what online behavior suggests about a given candidate’s offline behavior and potential work performance. Some participants, albeit a minority, ranked Candidate 2 last. They assumed that the lack of a social media profile meant that the candidate, in the words of one participant, ‘might have deleted everything to hide something.’In other words, it was inconceivable that a person would not have a social media presence, and the most likely explanation was a cover-up of bad behavior. A related concern was the risk that ‘we don’t know anything about him.’ On the other hand, 72 percent of participants ranked Candidate 2 as average, viewing the lack of social media as possibly negative but not disqualifying. One typical comment connected the lack of social media to a lack of social skills: ‘He is not active on social media, which is good, but it shows that he is not well connected with people and may lack personal skills.’Others, who most often ranked Candidate 2 as the second choice, saw the lack of social media as positive or neutral: ‘No social media but that’s ok. We could use some more grounded people’or ‘No social media image is better than a negative one.’

Candidate 1, who had negative social media profile was, as expected, ranked last by a majority of participants. Yet, the reasons for this ranking were diverse. Some respondents placed his social media activity in the context of customer service: would his evident frequent partying mean he would show up for work late? Others emphasized the risks for the company related to offensive gender- or race-related content connected with his social media profile, even if he wasn’t the one who posted it. Others emphasized not his behavior but his lack of discretion; in other words, not being careful with how he was being portrayed in social media showed a lack of judgment or maturity that was of more concern than the activities themselves. And how would this lack of discretion translate into the professional world?: ‘Would he talk about a customer [on social media]?’ A minority of respondents ranked Candidate 3 second and even first. Some said that although his social media was ‘questionable,’he had a good resume (even though, we would note, it was only slightly better than the other candidates). Other respondents apparently ignored the summary of Candidate 1’s social media presence and evaluated him purely on his slightly better resume.

These preliminary findings can lead to more in-depth study of job seekers’perceptions about how employers evaluate social media presence in making hiring decisions. This research provides a basis for continued research that can inform policy makers, educators, and employers in efforts to support professional and ethical behavior.

James Melton, Robert Miller, Brent Jensen