One morning in 2011, a 24-year-old Georgia high school teacher named Ashley Payne was called down to the office of her school’s principal and given an ultimatum. She could resign from her position or be fired. She hadn’t looked at a student the wrong way or practised corporal punishment. She had had a drink. To be precise, she had two—a glass of wine and a pint of beer, simultaneously, on a European vacation in 2009. The problem, though, was that a picture of this minor indulgence made its way onto Facebook, where—despite Payne using the site’s highest privacy settings—someone saw it, and brought it to the attention of the school’s principal. Payne took the high road: She resigned.
The “Facebook firing” is now an unfortunate fixture in Western professional culture, a warning to the working population at large that normal social behaviour, when captured and chronicled online, is aberrant and offensive. Having a beer after work—sometimes with your colleagues—is a socially acceptable activity. But upload a picture of that socially acceptable activity onto the Internet and it is rendered unacceptable. More than half of modern-day employers screen job applicants’ social media profiles for pictures like the one that implicated Payne, which means that this trend in cyberprohibition isn’t just getting people fired—it’s preventing them from getting hired, as well.
The logic behind this brand of professional prudishness, however maddening, is fairly simple. It’s not the beer-drinking itself that throws employers off; it’s the supposed lack of judgment inherent in making your beer-drinking public. The assumption is that if you lack judgment in this element of your life, you’ll lack it somewhere else, too—perhaps at work. This assumption, however, is deeply flawed.
A new study by psychology researchers at North Carolina State University suggests that employers who overlook otherwise capable job candidates because of “photos and text-based references to alcohol” may do so at their own peril. Researchers Will Stoughton, Lori Foster Thompson and Adam Meade collected personality data and social media behaviour data on a group of 175 university students.
“There are lots of articles giving guidance [to job candidates], saying, ‘Clean up your Facebook profiles,’ but we were interested in providing some data for employers to think about,” says Foster Thompson. “What we found,” she says, “is that people who post pictures of beer are no less conscientious,” nor are they less likely to make responsible, valuable employees. In fact, “people who are extroverted and more gregarious [qualities employers specifically look for, she says] are most likely to post pictures of beer.” Foster Thompson says the study was inspired in part by the fact that companies spend thousands of dollars developing the perfect social media screening tools, without assessing if their own assumptions about what constitutes a “red flag” are accurate to begin with.
What the study didn’t account for, however, are employers—most of them younger—who have embraced reality on their own. For Michael Morozov, the 23-year-old owner of a Toronto window-cleaning company called Gold Standard, what is to traditionalists a red flag is to him a good omen. Morozov employs door-to-door salespeople and he has an unusual but refreshing hiring criterion. “I prefer that salespeople are party animals,” he says. “If you have a guy who goes clubbing, it shows confidence. This is sales.” His own findings seem to support Foster Thompson’s research: “Some of the most talented people we have, if you looked at their Facebook pictures, you’d never hire them.”
According to business development consultant Kaelah Russell (she interviews employers to gauge what they’re looking for) at IQ Partners, a Toronto headhunting firm, “younger employers are probably more understanding if there are pictures of people out partying. For the most part, they’re easygoing and flexible.”
Someone has to be. If posting pictures of a social night out ups your chances of being an extroverted, gregarious person, then abstaining from the same behaviour actually lessens them.
I have several friends who have just completed teachers’ college, some of whom have or are currently looking for jobs. They have heard Payne’s story and others like it, and they are afraid. One in particular cowers every time someone pulls a camera or smartphone out at a party. Like a Disney-owned Miley Cyrus, she won’t be seen in public smoking or drinking. It’s utterly backwards that a culture so social is at once so introverted and puritan—that job candidates who are now expected to be social media whiz kids must also be social media shut-ins. And all in fear of a glass of beer.
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