Studies by the Pew Research Center found that half of all American adults use online social networking sites -- such as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and LinkedIn -- and 65 percent of adults with Internet access are on social media outlets.
Although the use of social media in hiring practices is not as prevalent, the trend is growing and job seekers should be aware of what their profile shares with a prospective employer.
In August, the Society for Human Resource Management released findings from a survey of employers concerning their practices and how social media fits into the hiring process.
"Contrary to popular beliefs, it appears that only a small number of organizations are using online search engines and social networking websites to screen job candidates. The primary reasons for not using these methods are the legal risks, the lack of verifiable data and the lack of job-relatedness of much of the information found online," stated the SHRM report. "Only 18 percent of organizations indicated using networking websites to screen job candidates during the hiring process."
Additionally, only 26 percent of those surveyed reported using online search engines in the screening process. Those that did utilize online tools were most often seeking executive and management-level professionals and performed the search after the first round of interviews.
Zia Fennell, president-elect of the Allatoona SHRM Chapter and owner of Z-Edge Consulting, offered advice for employers and applicants on the best use of social media.
"Each company should have a policy on what they use for hiring criteria, and if that includes social media, then the company should be screening all applicants in the same manner," Fennell said in an email to The Daily Tribune News.
The SHRM survey found the top reason for not using social media sites for hiring is legal concerns. Although no law forbids online searches, the danger lies in the information garnered from social networking sites, which is illegal for employers to seek, such as race, age, gender and marital status. For these reasons, employers are encouraged to formulate a policy regarding social media use and include that policy on all applications.
Employers also are urged to conduct online searches using an employee, or third-party professional, unconnected with the final decision making. This person's sole responsibility in the process should be to compile a report of only that information which is pertinent to the job.
For job seekers, Fennell emphasizes the importance of information contained on public profiles.
"If a company utilizes Facebook or other social media as a screening tool, they often times would be looking for: provocative or inappropriate photographs; drinking or using drugs; bad mouthing previous employers, co-workers or clients; poor communication skills; discriminatory comments; lying about qualifications; sharing confidential information regarding employer; and using text language and emoticons," Fennell said. "Avoid placing any of this type of information on any public social media page. Remember that your [Facebook] profile picture can be seen by all, so be sure this picture is neutral/professional. For example, do not have alcohol or drugs in your hand or near you, do not have on inappropriate clothing, and do not make inappropriate gestures with your body."
Fennell suggests separating public and private profiles and restricting the privacy settings. Facebook profiles allow users to select who can view certain aspects of their profile. Fennell urges job seekers to "choose your friends wisely on Facebook" and connect with all professional contacts on LinkedIn, a site designed specifically for professional networking.
"It is beneficial to post public profiles containing your professional information such as education, job history, etc., that you do want employers to see. This allows a prospective employer to find information via a Google search or LinkedIn profile that should align with your resume data. It can add to your credibility as a job seeker if you have a very well completed LinkedIn profile, especially including recommendations of your work," Fennell said.