A Northwestern student with a strong resume and a GPA above 3.7 encountered great difficulty getting an internship interview when she applied through University Career Services.
“We couldn’t figure out why…” Jose Santos of University Career Services said. “We talked to the employer and asked why, what could be going on, why [isn’t she] being considered? And the employer just said ‘look at your Facebook.’”
Following his discovery that Facebook content was hurting Northwestern students, Santos began working to educate the student body. He researched and wrote materials for parents and students, and has conducted informational workshops for the past two years. As the issue has become more prevalent, it has factored more prominently into his job description.
“Employers first got in [Facebook] for marketing, you know, ‘let’s attract students,’” Santos said. “Then they started checking out people they were going to hire, and then they found very interesting things.”
This shift in employers’ use of social networking sites from advertisement opportunities to corporate research spurred Santos’ work educating students about associated risks.
“I was always voicing out opinions about it and they were like ‘Jose, why don’t you research it,’” he said. “Maybe we should let our students know instead of sitting there and letting them do something wrong.”
Santos has been working to educate students, parents and school officials on the impact of social networking sites and their content, culminating in an advisory section he wrote in this year’s University Career Services Career Guide. In addition, his workshops through Career Services teach students how to strengthen the privacy restrictions on their web pages.
“I felt like students were just unaware. They had no clue that employers were in there and I think that they have to know about it,” Santos said. “I felt bad because at the time no one would tell them.”
According to college career counselors and experts, recruiting companies have made a habit of checking college students’ backgrounds through search results on Google and other search engines. Now with social networking outlets like Facebook, the same recruiters have direct access to pictures and wall posts that may indicate a student’s position on alcohol, drugs, sexual activities, and language, as well as providing personal profiles that show age, gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and political views.
If any of the latter are considered to determine employment, it violates the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s criteria for discriminatory practices. Hiring decisions based on behaviors and posted materials online, however, are fair game.
Such was the case for another Northwestern student interning for a state representative in Washington, D.C. who posted defamatory remarks about her boss on her Facebook profile. Her boss maintained her own profile, found the posting, and the student was asked to leave shortly afterward.
Facebook content’s permeation of real life is becoming more and more common. The Career Guide says that one in 10 employers will use social networking sites to review candidate information.
“A student who graduated from my high school applied to be a counselor at an academic summer program, and before she was hired, [her employers] made her clean up her Facebook,” Weinberg freshman Alexandra French said.
Shortly after he began counseling students, Santos deleted his profile as well.
“I had an account and it was fun, but it just became kind of iffy because there’s a professionalism you have to abide by,” he said.
In response to the impact social networking sites now have on professional aspects of students’ lives, many concerned parents are getting more and more involved in the online world. From privacy reminders to checking in on their students through the site, to even creating their own profiles, adults are intervening.
Susann Carlson, 57, has maintained a Facebook profile for almost two years since her son began college. She shares her concerns about students’ posted content and the resulting impact with many other parents.
“My friend, who hires college graduates for a big-name company, said that he was really scared about his daughters being on Facebook, that he was concerned about it because that’s a place where employers are going to check ,” Carlson said. “Since he is responsible for hiring people a lot, I said ‘are you going to do that?’ and he said ‘absolutely.’”
Even some college students have noticed that their peers’ actions may be putting them at risk.
“All the time, I’ll look at something and think, ‘wow, I would untag myself in that situation,’” Weinberg freshman Nivedita Basu said.
“Tagging” links photos to specific user profiles. Although untagging eliminates the easily-accessible link, the photos are still on Facebook. Other privacy options exist, but are rarely used to the fullest extent.
“As long as [an] employer is on the site legitimately, they are permitted to see those on their network,” Malorie Lucich, a Facebook spokesperson, said. “We encourage users to restrict their privacy settings if they do not want others seeing their profile.”
The best protection, other than eliminating incriminating evidence altogether, is setting profiles to different levels of privacy so they are only visible by friends. Facebook administrators recommend restricting profile visibility through their privacy settings. The effectiveness of this preventative measure, while helpful, is contingent upon careful selection of “friends,” people who have access to each profile.
In addition to information posted on Facebook, the Career Guide recommends that students use Google or another search engine to check over any associated online content.
“There’s always a new crop of kids out there who don’t realize, especially when they start with this whole job search process, that social networking sites are a part of it, so we make sure that we let them know,” Santos said.
Including Facebook profiles in background checks is a new element in the hiring process that will likely become more active as social networking use among students rises. For corporations, internship programs and graduate schools, it’s just smart business.
“They’re investing a lot of money into getting the best and the brightest students, and that’s why things like Facebook matter,” Santos said.
Taylor Norris contributed to this report.