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.


CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS: Interview Study on Digital Reputation Management!

Did you find yourself ‘cleaning up’ your Facebook and/or Twitter profiles during your most recent job search?
Are you now in full-time employment having graduated in 2013?

If the answers are ‘yes’ to the above, please read on!

If you have just arrived at my blog, then please allow me to introduce myself: my name is Chris and I’m a final year PhD candidate within the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham.

My research explores psychological factors that may be influencing how young adults manage their professional reputation when social media, and I’m particularly interested in people making the transition from full-time education to employment.

If you would be interested in helping with my current study, please allow me to outline what your involvement will be.

l would like to invite you to participate in a confidential and anonymous face-to-face interview session lasting for around an hour-and-a-half.

The interview session will be divided into two sections. In the first part, you will be asked questions about your current role and experiences of using social media during your job search. You will also be asked to think of as many instances as possible of where you, or someone else in your network, used Facebook effectively, or ineffectively, to convey a professional image during this period of transition.

In the second part of the interview session, you will be asked to link your Facebook account to two currently available reputation management websites, which aim to identify content associated with your profile that could have damaging professional consequences for you.

The interview session itself will be arranged for a time, date and location of your convenience during March 2014. In exchange for your time, I am happy to cover the cost of refreshments and am able to reimburse any reasonable travel costs incurred. Of course, you will also have also have my eternal gratitude and hopefully you will find the experience interesting!

To reiterate, participation in this study is completely voluntary and you are under no obligation to take part. Even with your consent, you do not have to answer all of the questions if you feel uncomfortable doing so and you are free to withdraw from the study at any point prior to, during or after the interview up until any potential publication of the findings.

If you are interested, then please contact me either on the following email: or the contact form below.

Thank you for your interest and I hope to hear from you soon!

Best wishes


Your future boss knows what you did this summer: it’s online

Probably not the most suitable attire for that job interview.

Just over a fortnight ago, LinkedIn announced it is to make its professional network available to UK-based students aged 13 years and older; primarily as a way of enabling young people to leverage the insights and connections of the millions of successful professionals on the site.

Despite criticism that this may prematurely expose young people to “the harsh realities of advanced capitalism” and “pressure them into making decisions based on what others want, rather than what excites them”, the strategy LinkedIn has adopted should be applauded. When it comes to online networks, be they social or professional, it’s never too early to start thinking about your professional image.

YOHLO (You only have to learn once)

If you happen to be one of the thousands of this year’s cohort of freshmen-in-waiting, please indulge me in making your pain-staking wait just that little bit more excruciating.

The first weeks of university may turn out to be the most socially intensive, exhilarating and downright exhausting period of your life. One thing is almost guaranteed: while your Facebook friendships will inevitably rocket in number and your tweets will crackle with excitable hashtagging about mysterious freshers’ fair goodies, corridor parties and enigmatic course mates, the relatively mundane world of career planning and full-time employment will seem a lifetime away.

So, what you may not want to hear is that there has never been a better day than today to start thinking about what last night’s throw-away tweets could say about “professional you” of the future. Seeing as we already find ourselves gathered around the campfire, let me share with you the cautionary tale of young Paris Brown.

Ms Brown, a mere 17 years old, was about to move into the inaugural role of Britain’s Youth Police Crime Commissioner when it was reported that she had posted various tweets that were deemed unbecoming of her newfound civic responsibilities. An important point to be emphasised here is that Ms Brown’s tweets were shared when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 – presumably some time prior to her being appointed to her role – yet her public shaming was as merciless as it will no doubt prove to be permanent.

As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger remarks in his excellent book, Delete:

As much of what we say and do is stored and accessible through digital memory, our words and deeds may be judged not only by our present peers, but also by all our future ones.

If you’re still in any doubt as to the consequences of violating expectations of professionally appropriate behaviour upon social media, try the following test: search for Ms Brown’s current presence on social media. Like others before her, she has become a digitalpersona non grata; conspicuously absent from a world that almost certainly most of her peers still inhabit.

Much ado about nothing?

If it still seems unlikely that you should have any need to consider future employers when sharing your fresher exploits with friends on social media, then you may not be alone. A recent large-scale survey of more than 20,000 international respondents indicated that more than 70% of 16 to 34 year olds in the UK were not concerned about how their current use of social media could harm their future career prospects.

Indeed, as part of my own PhD research on digital reputation management behaviour, I surveyed 257 UK-based college, undergraduate and postgraduate students and found that college and first year undergraduates only infrequently considered the potential career-related implications of their social media use; particularly in comparison to fellow undergraduates entering the final year of their studies. What’s more, only one-fifth of all respondents reported having a LinkedIn profile; a figure suggesting that the core challenge facing the professional networking site may not be coercing young people to grow up too fast, but attracting a younger user base in the first place.

So, an understandable question at this point might be “if hardly any of my peers care about their online professional image, why should I?” The answer to this is deceptively simple: the organisations that you may eventually seek employment with do care. In a JobVite survey of 1,600 recruiting and human resources professionals published just last week, 93% of the sample reported looking at a candidate’s social profile to inform judgments about their suitability. And if you find yourself out of contention for a position, don’t necessarily expect to be informed if it was due to damaging aspects of your digital footprint.

The enduring candidates dinner

Job candidates at assessment dinners are advised to remember that despite the outwardly social context of the event, they are still subject to the scrutiny of their hosts and, likewise, students should think carefully and proactively about what content they are willing to disclose on social media. Such advice is not intended to generate fear and anxiety or to dampen enthusiasm for what is a memorable induction into the privilege of student life, but to simply encourage taking responsibility for one’s present day digital actions in order to avoid “complications” in the future.

While the difficulty of fully deleting content once published means that prevention is almost always preferable to cure when interacting with social media, a number of free reputation management sites already exist in helping you to identify potentially problematic content,review potential threats to privacyensure that positive links show up towards the top of Google searches and of course, share your accomplishments with other professionals. In short, there is no need to enjoy or savour your time as an undergraduate any less than us digital curmudgeons hurtling towards (or beyond) our 30s, who were still fumbling about with how to link Jeff Buckley songs to our MySpace profiles as we handed in our dissertations.

Encouraging the consideration of online professional image doesn’t have to mean trampling on the joys of youth. It can mean supporting young people to make the transition from early adopters of social media to responsible denizens of a digital society that is, paradoxically, both native and yet punishingly unfamiliar all at once.

Originally published by Chris James Carter, 9 September 2013 at The Conversation.