In her role as Deputy Director of Reading University’s Careers Advisory Service, Naeema Pasha had become aware that the issue of Digital Identity – in particular in relation to social networking sites – is increasingly on employers’ minds.
“I’ve been at conferences recently when discussions about posting drunken pictures or whatever have come up,” she says, “but employers still seem to have very much a mixed attitude towards potential employees’ Digital Identity. Not all companies seem to know where they are on this subject – whether to have a policy about not looking at Facebook, or taking it into account when it comes to recruitment.”
Some are embracing the possibilities of social networking rather than regarding it as something subversive, she adds. “Cadbury Schweppes has a Facebook page for new graduates, and they use it to encourage new graduates to talk to potential graduates. It is slightly policed – what people put on their profiles, and they’ve made this part of their policy.”
On the whole, though, Naeema believes most employers are tending to shy away from digging around in an employee’s Digital Identity and, in her opinion, quite rightly. “I think most employers recognise that people have a private life – and that students get drunk! They did themselves.”
There are not only privacy issues at stake here though, she adds, but legal ones. “I’m sure some employers do dig around into someone’s online activity – but there is a principle in recruitment of equality of opportunity and being fair – and they need to be shown to be fair, otherwise an applicant could come back at them saying this wasn’t part of the selection procedure, and take them to a tribunal.
“If you are going to use Facebook profiling as part of your selection strategy, then you have to be open about it and let everybody know. If you haven’t done that, and you are using social criteria, then there could be a legal case to answer.”
When it comes to advising students, Naeema is very firm about which aspects of their Digital Identity the careers service should and shouldn’t issue guidance on. “Where they are actually interfacing with potential employers, we can advise on that – not using an inappropriate hotmail address as a contact on a CV for example, “she says.
“And etiquette is different online. How you write a cover letter and send it off to an employer is different to how you write an email, and we can advise students on how employers expect an email cover letter to be because it’s coming into business now.”
But when it comes to social networking activity, adds Naeema, it’s a whole different ball game. “I don’t think we should be working with students to say ‘you’ve go to clean up your life’. It’s their life, and how they present to an employer is separate.
“It all comes down to selection criteria. If the employer is saying you’ve got to be this, this, and this, does it mean if you go out, get drunk and have a kebab at two in the morning you can’t be those things? I think there’s a danger of conflating the two, and if an employer makes a decision on that basis then it’s wrong,” she says.
Naeema believes students would not particularly benefit from attempts to instruct them on how to manage their Digital Identity because ultimately, she says, “We shouldn’t be prescriptive.” But also because social networking is still a relatively new medium, and people are still trying work out what kind of relationship they should have with it.
“I think the way social networking sites are developing is still very organic, and putting emphasis on how students should be, and saying to them ‘you’ve got to be careful’, and ‘you shouldn’t do this or that because someone’s going to be looking at you’ is the wrong way to go,” she adds.
“I think the emphasis should shift to how the employers look at these things, and then people will respond – then they will know where the boundaries are, and might start to think for themselves that they shouldn’t put something on their profile because of how it might be interpreted.”
There may some value, Naeema concedes, to making students aware that the information they put about themselves online will remain there – and can be copied, or misused. But, she says, “I think that’s something you need to let people know – and then they can make their own choices.”