What if Facebook Timeline was read instead of your CV?
Unless you want future employers to know your entire history, you need to change your privacy settings, and fast
guardian.co.uk, Monday 30 January 2012 11.28 GMT
What does your profile page say about you? Photograph: Linda Nylind
It's all change at Facebook in the next few weeks as its timeline feature is rolled out to all users – whether they want it or not.
This will make it easier for people to dig into your past from your homepage in an unprecedented manner. Pull up someone's profile with Timeline enabled and you can scroll back through their entire Facebook history. Click on a year (say, 2008) and you can see everything they did in those 12 months, including status updates, photos, and wall posts.
After Timeline is enabled (you can request it before it is automatically rolled out), you have seven days to review and edit your profile before it goes live to the world – but this is a positive security step you need to take. The default position is that Timeline will lay bare your Facebook history.
Does this matter from an employment point of view? Well, yes it does. Numerous surveys have shown that employers are using Facebook and other social media sites to vet job applicants. In January 2010, a survey for Careerbuilder.co.uk found that more than half of employers usedsocial networking sites to research job candidates. As the sites have become more popular, the chances are that percentage could have grown.
Imagine your prospective employer uncovers elements of your past through a social media search that show you in a less colourful light than you would wish to be seen. There may be photos of you in a drunken stupor, or ones that identify you as being affiliated to an organisation that does not fit with the employer's ethos
It is your prospective employer's subjective opinion that you are dealing with. If they happen to interpret information or photos you have posted in a certain way, and reject your application, how will you ever know what the decision was really based on?
One could argue that such vetting is entirely justified from an employer's point of view. Many background checks are already in place before the hiring process begins. Shouldn't employers do as much as they can to protect their legitimate business interests?
On the other hand, such an approach arguably represents an unfair intrusion into people's private lives. Indeed, in the last few years theGerman government has moved to make it illegal for employers to use personal social networks such as Facebook as part of their recruitment process. Job-seekers in Germany have the right to take legal action if they discover they have lost out on a position due to the employer basing their decision on information from Facebook.
Whilst in the UK you do have rights under the Data Protection Act to protect the processing of your personal information, it is unlikely that an employer viewing a personal social media site without printing it off or forwarding it would be caught by the Act. With Linkedin, which is a professional networking site, it can easily be argued that your profile is highly relevant to the recruitment process.
Employers have to be careful not to discriminate (on grounds of disability, race, sex) in the use of information they gather. They will be laying themselves open to claims if discrimination can be proven and this applies to prospective candidates as well as existing employees. ACAS recently issued a new guide that urges employers not to be "heavy-handed" by penalising existing staff for unprofessional comments on websites.
Let's not forget that your Facebook profile could show you up in a more positive light and sway your employer to offer you a job. A candidate who comes across as shy and retiring at interview but is able to present their "real self" online could find this acts as an extended CV, especially if their blogs are well-written and show positive interests – whether the employer agrees with them or not.
But if you don't want Facebook's Timeline to broadcast your personal history to the world (whether you are a job applicant or an existing employee), make sure you get your privacy settings right. You can hardly blame employers from taking a snoop otherwise.