Thinking about Employer Surveillance of your Facebook Profile: How Soon Is Now?

The following post was written for the University of Nottingham Careers Service Blog. You can check out the interesting work they do with University of Nottingham students here.

Imagine if you will, the following situation. You are in the final year of your course and are overwhelmed with emotions that veer wildly between the unbridled joy of finishing and the utter terror of the vast expanse of life that is, well… finishing. You are already starting to think about applying for jobs; perhaps even having made a few enquiries already.

Now consider the possibility that potential employers are trawling the web to see if you have a profile on Facebook. Further still, imagine that they are searching for any accessible photos or posts to gauge your suitability as a future employee. Ask yourself: how likely does this event seem to you? Is it more likely to happen to people like you, or to others? Do you think it is likely to be happening in the near future or more likely to occur only once you are closer to graduating?

On face value, these questions might seem a little odd but they all tap into a fascinating theoretical concept within social psychology known as ‘psychological distance’. This deceptively simple idea argues that the distance with which we think about something happening – whether in terms of how likely we feel it is to happen, whom it is likely to effect or how soon it is likely to happen – affects the ways in which we think about that event, such as how risky we feel it to be or how likely we are to behave in response.

Importantly, both you and I may be due to experience an event at roughly the same actual point in time (such as our date of graduation) but for you this may seem very far away, whilst for me it may seems extremely close. A range of research studies have consistently demonstrated that in this case, you would be likely to express little concern for aspects relating to the event (perhaps putting off ordering your gown, or making arrangements for guests) whereas I would be expected to be far more concerned and sensitive to the risks of not being prepared.


One of twenty ‘mock’ professionally risky Facebook posts used as stimuli in the study –
this one based upon a real post made by former Youth Police Crime Commissioner, Paris Brown.

It is this exactly this idea that I wanted to explore in my recent survey-based study of 257 final year students (47% based here at the University of Nottingham) searching for work in the coming year. Participants were asked similar questions to those asked of you above, relating to the psychological distance of employers looking at their Facebook profiles. They were then asked to rate how risky each of twenty mock Facebook posts would be to their career prospects if similar posts were to be found on their own Timeline.

So, did psychological distance predict perceptions of risk in the expected way? In short, yes! When student job seekers perceived the event of employers looking at their Facebook profiles as being psychologically close, they tended to rate the mock Facebook posts as being more professionally risky, and vice versa when the event was perceived as being distant. Furthermore, this relationship was observed when the Facebook posts were related to anti-social behaviours such as swearing or use of derogatory language, but not when related to more stylistic aspects, such as spelling or grammatical errors.

What we can take away from this study is an indication that job-seeking students vary in the extent to which they perceive the type of Facebook content identified by employers as being professionally risky as actually being risky to their own career prospects. One factor influencing this appears to be how psychological distant we feel the event of potential employers looking at our Facebook profile is. The implication then is that when we think of this event as being distant in time or unlikely to ever happen, we perceive professional risk as being lower and may perhaps even be more inclined to allow potentially career-limiting content to stay upon on our Facebook profiles. Given the increasingly prominent use of social media by employers to run background checks on job applicants, it would seem advisable for job-seekers to consider that possibility of this happening to them sooner rather than later.