Companies are not entirely justified when they screen an applicant's social media profile. Here's why.

One of the basic traps in American life is the necessity of having a job to live. People with jobs do things, they stay busy, but the entire illusion of serving a higher good quickly falls apart when you start to ask yourself what greater good is served by working as a shift manager at the T-Mobile store and why your food and shelter should depend on your being able to claim that title.

The more necessary jobs become, however, the more  corrupt the process of getting one, with employers using increasingly arbitrary measures to evaluate people whose living they should become responsible for. For years, this has justified a process of sniffing out potential hires on social media, looking for warning signs or marks of bad taste to help trim the flood of people applying for a particular position.

New research from North Carolina State University has shown these practices of snooping may be doing serious long-term damage to the companies that practice them, alienating qualified applicants alongside the undesirables and weakening their abilities to compete for the best talent.

Roni Jacobson describes the duo of experiments in Scientific American, the first of which had 175 college students applying for a job. Two weeks later, the researchers contacted some students and told them their social media profiles had been screened for “professionalism” by the potential employer. Those students felt they had been treated less fairly than other applicants and described less interest in the hiring organization for future opportunities.

In a second experiment, 208 adults were divided into three groups and asked to complete a survey about a hypothetical hiring scenario. The first group was told they had been given a job offer and that their Facebook profile had been screened in the process, the second group were not given a job offer but were still told their profiles had been considered in the process. The third group were not told anything about the company’s social media screening process one way or the other. As with the college students, test subjects who had been told they were screened had significantly worse opinions about the hiring company, both among people given job offers and those who weren’t. These subjects also were more willing to potentially sue the company if they learned that any of its hiring practices were “unjust.” 

Building up a cryptic litmus test for people interested in joining your cause has a suspect history, with companies like Google and Apple posing obscure intelligence tests to employees that have no real bearing on a person’s ability to do their job.

Jacobson reports that more than half of employers in one survey admitted to not only snooping, but describing social media presence as the “biggest factor influencing their decision not to hire an applicant.” Part of what makes this phenomenon so alienating is its secretive imbalance.

The idea of being judged isn’t intimidating in itself because there is always the possibility of revealing some reactionary short-sightedness in the person judging, which can be made apparent in a reciprocal judgment. The structure of job markets ensures there can be no meaningful reciprocity of judgement because applicants need jobs more than company’s need applicants.

Companies don’t typically tell the people they’ve surveiled on social media that because of a series of pictures from 2008 they’ve decided that he or she isn’t capable of doing a certain job or fitting into the “culture” of a given office, as if doing a job or fitting in were matters of predestination rather than active processes negotiated between mutually dependent parties.

You don’t actually have to be special, or the right kind of person, to do most jobs. There is nothing innately special in being a project manager, a junior vice president, or a research analyst that can’t be learned through a few weeks or months of dedicated practice. This fact makes the entire concept of a job market untenable. Trying to prove you’re the right person for a job, and maintaining a social media presence that projects that persona, is a distortion only made real by the fact that economic growth and full employment can’t exist in the same dimension.

Building up a cryptic litmus test for people interested in joining your cause has a suspect history, with companies like Google and Apple posing obscure intelligence tests to employees that have no real bearing on a person’s ability to do their job.

It’s more likely that all of these modes of testing have no purpose in ensuring a company’s longterm health and competitiveness. Instead, they are artificial roadblocks that help keep in place the power imbalance where anyone who wants to have shelter and food in America will eventually have to make their peace with walking into a corporate lobby and asking for a salary and a social identity that comes with it.

Were the world not composed around this artificial imbalance of authority, who would really care that some person out there was not comfortable with your Halloween costume one year, or some hedonic indulgences you may have tweeted about?

So long as companies have the power to validate and invalidate people’s socio-economic worth, they should be obliged to structure themselves around total inclusion, instead of becoming increasingly insulated and prejudicial. Doing so would make it look more and more like a simple community of humans cooperating for a common cause. But employment habits like filtering people based on social media superficialities only reaffirm how few and flimsy our common causes are when companies are allowed to define them. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.