Would you be comfortable if your latest tweets were used as part of the recruitment process for a university place, or for a new job? I was intrigued by an American Medical Association article drawing attention to a survey of medical school/residency recruiters published earlier this month which suggests this has started to happen.
When I was applying to medical school, my online activity -- largely posts to esoteric newsgroups under a pseudonym -- were mainly about Rocky Horror and repeatedly featured the word 'groovy'; people occasionally posted photos of me mid-performance on their personal webpages. I'm not sure any of that information would have been especially helpful to me in my medical school application... But could this public evidence of my quirky hobby have been considered somehow objectively 'unprofessional' and thus negatively bias my chances of getting into medical school?
Over half of the 600 recruiters surveyed reported they thought an unprofessional tweet could bias candidate selection -- and 9 percent reported that they already use social networking sites as a standard part of their recruitment processes. So this is reality, not idle speculation. And with a large number of those surveyed reporting that they thought social media interactions ought to be part of the process (and less than a fifth expressing privacy concerns about it), it's a reasonable extrapolation that the practice of reviewing candidates' online interactions will likely become increasingly routine in recruitment. The discussions I've seen around this possibility have been tinged with paranoia, cautions to prospective students or job applicants, calls for guidelines for those engaging in social media, and general Orwellian warnings.
In my opinion, this is all a bit negative. The days of people being mystified about how their drunken rants or saucy photos could possibly have turned up in unfortunate places are receding. People are increasingly informed about the risks of posting anything online, and managing personal security around this sort of thing is Modern Living 101. Certainly an ill-advised post on social media can bring all sorts of repercussions, and there's always old-fashioned bad luck, but if in this day and age people don't know that (and routinely fail to adjust their anonymity, privacy settings or personal appropriateness filters accordingly), this could potentially be relevant in assessing their suitability for certain roles, such as those involving technology, confidentiality, literacy, strategic thinking, good judgment, or the ability to operate successfully in the modern world.
Another argument is the Big Brother one -- why should recruiters be delving into private aspects of our lives? Well, if you post something under your own name on an unrestricted, public social media site, it's not private. I absolutely oppose employers asking for personal passwords and other genuine abuses of privacy, but if you've chosen to share something in the public domain, cries of 'invasion of privacy' don't make much sense to me. I'm not sure I'd have been so gung-ho about publishing my groovy Rocky Horror musings if I'd expected them to be of interest to any other than like-minded fans. That attitude was naively 90s, and I don't really believe many people think like that any more.
The way I see it, as technology develops, for many of us, we have ceased to leave work fully behind when we close the office door for the night, and I'm not just talking about Blackberry addiction. As a doctor, I know that past, present and future patients can theoretically see my tweets, so when I decide to post something public, I need to assume they are all looking. Just as I need to assume my manager is looking. And the press. And my mother. And I need to make decisions accordingly. Of course we all make the occasional misguided comment, or convey the wrong tone. Things can be taken out of context and go awry. But by choosing to engage in public fora, and by shunning anonymity, we're essentially accepting that risk, and by doing so, we accept responsibility for managing it appropriately -- and how we do that is not irrelevant for future employers.
And so, I feel we should turn the argument around. Far more helpful than worrying about whether your tweets make you look bad, why not worry about whether they make you look good? The medical school application form, in my day, was the key opportunity to look good. As such, I did some cursory sessions of 'meals on wheels,' and helped with bingo at my grandmother's nursing home, so I could use them as evidence in writing about how I loved caring for people. I read the clever-sounding journals I found in the local library as reportable evidence of my interest in the medical issues of the day. In reality, I dreaded these activities and discontinued them as soon as I submitted the form (as did many of my friends), but I happily ticked the box to say I'd done them. Social media, on the other hand, can show real-time engagement and has the potential to turn the binary, face value assessment of the information on a CV or application form into more meaningful qualitative assessment. My engagement and understanding of journal articles I claimed to read could be evidenced (and enhanced) by my discussing them with others on Twitter, or my participation in a Twitter Journal Club. My claimed interest in medicine could be noted through my engagement in discussions on related subjects, and my intelligence might emerge through the quality of my engagement. Clearly assessing all this would be subjective and time consuming and subject to all sorts of biases, but I don't doubt that methods to better assess this sort of thing will evolve in time. At a more basic level, a tweet that said: "Argh parents forcing me to be a doctor -- hate sick people and really want to be an accountant," would also be of relevance to recruiters.
Of course, people can (and do) game any system -- engaging vigorously and visibly in relevant, prominently virtuous activities around the application period. But is that so terrible? I flicked through those journal articles without gaining a lot, just as my friends did, to tick another application box. On the other hand, thinking of clever things to say about a journal article on social media would have required me to at least skim it, gain a basic understanding so I didn't make a fool of myself, formulate an opinion, and articulate it succinctly and appropriately. Even if I was to reappropriate someone else's opinion as my own, I'd probably make some effort to ensure it wasn't idiotic. And by doing so, my own knowledge, skills, and interest would develop.
Furthermore, by interacting with a supportive and stimulating community of interested, interesting professionals, there's a tendency to start to become one of them, sharing information and developing new ways of thinking, learning and understanding, in a way that just doesn't happen when you're seventeen with no in-person access to medical conversations, sitting alone in a library, fighting through the latest edition of some esoteric tome in the hope of impressing an interviewer. Using social media, I'd have been pointed to the important, interesting new papers rather than choosing at random. I'd have learned elementary critical appraisal skills. People would have encouraged me. Even if all this was staged to impress the recruitment team, I'd like to believe that for many, enforced intelligent social media interaction begets sustained, increasingly intelligent social media interaction, even when the obligation is removed. The incentive to engage could reap lifelong benefits.
Rather than the guidelines for candidates' social media engagement that the survey authors call for, I'd prefer to see guidelines for how recruiters can meaningfully, appropriately, fairly, and ethically assess candidates using social media as part of the recruitment process, if they choose to do so. Social media engagement is increasingly a fact of life. The way you engage publicly is laid out for anyone's judgment. You can use privacy settings and vigilance for the photos and comments you'd prefer not to go beyond your friends. However, if you put the information out there, with implicit permission for anyone to view it, it's hard to muster good arguments against recruiters doing so (other than perhaps current imperfect assessment methods, and the question of bias and inequality of access surrounding applicants who do not engage online). At the end of the day, I just can't see a great deal of justification for blindly adhering to 19th century methods for 21st century processes.
And if the possibility of future employers checking candidates out on social networks drives more people to interact intelligently with social media, learning, sharing, collaborating, and being inspired by each other rather than posting multiple pictures of cats or writing abusive comments, well, so be it.
Follow Dr. Layla McCay on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LaylaMcCay