Imagine that you are seeking new professional opportunities. You spotted a scholarship or job that seems like a perfect fit. You would probably polish your application materials, like your resume and cover letter. But what about your social media accounts? Would you review your postings and photographs? With the prevalence of social media use, professional recruiters routinely go beyond the standard application materials, and increasingly rely on information available on social media. What you post on your personal social media accounts, primarily for social purposes, may end up influencing your professional outcomes.

Information on Personal Social Media Accounts May Influence Professional Outcomes

According to a national survey conducted by CareerBuilder in 2018, 70% of recruiters indicated that they had used social media sites to research job candidates during the hiring process, up from 11% in 2006. And of the recruiters who did search for candidates' social media accounts, over half indicated that they found content that made them decide not to hire a candidate. Personal information unrelated to work can be found on candidates' personal social media accounts. Crucially, recent research suggests that recruiters' evaluations based on candidates' social media accounts do not predict candidates' actual job performance. Nonetheless, this personal information can trigger biases in the selection process, affecting the outcome for job candidates.

The Impact of Sexy Social Media Photos

Of the great variety of personal information available on social media accounts, our research focused on sexual information revealed through self-sexualized photos—photos of the self with an attempt to appear sexy. It is not uncommon for both men and women, especially teenagers and young adults to post self-sexualized photos on social media. We wondered whether sexy social media photos are particularly harmful to the professional advancement of female candidates, compared with male candidates.

We conducted four experiments, asking participants to imagine themselves making professional selection decisions—either selecting candidates for a merit-based scholarship at their university or selecting candidates for an entry-level job position as a hiring committee member at their company. As part of the selection process, participants learned information about the candidates' qualifications, but were also presented with photos presumably available on their social media accounts. In one condition, a male and a female candidate both had photos of them wearing semi-professional clothing. Here, the female candidate was more likely to be selected over the male candidate. This result was consistent with some recent research finding a female hiring advantage, especially when candidates' qualifications are stellar, as in our studies. But, importantly, in our experimental condition, when a male and a female candidate were dressed and posed in a sexually provocative way, the male candidate was now more likely to be selected compared with the female candidate.

The penalty against female candidates occurred specifically when participants encountered the candidates' sexy photos, but not for other non-sexual photos unrelated to work, such as photos of candidates eating or working out. Moreover, the penalty was observed for both male and female participants, and even among those who explicitly endorsed egalitarian beliefs. The robustness of the findings suggests that the processes underlying the sexy social media photo penalty may operate implicitly—i.e., without people being aware of such biases—and be influenced by biases held at a societal level.

Practical Suggestions

Are there ways to reduce or eliminate these biases? More research is needed, but the findings suggest a few ways forward. First, hiring organizations could develop clear guidelines for decision-makers about the pitfalls of using candidates' social media accounts during the selection process. Biases might be reduced by encouraging decision-makers to avoid looking at candidates' social media accounts, and by educating them that social media content does not predict candidates' actual job performance. Additionally, social media companies could also enhance their privacy protection features. Although privacy protection settings allow users to limit the accessibility of their posted content to specific audiences, these protections are usually not turned on by default. Making privacy protection settings a default could help limit the access that recruiters and other decision-makers have to social media information, minimizing potential biases.

Lastly, job candidates themselves might want to consider steps that they can take to avoid the negative effects of such practices. Past work suggests that people tend to underestimate or overlook how their social media accounts influence how others perceive them. With accumulating evidence that personal information on social media profiles may trigger biases that penalize some groups of people more than others, job candidates might want to be more cautious about what they make available on their personal social media accounts. Schools, counselors, and parents could also inform students about the potential negative consequences of social media use for academic and professional advancement.

Although social media has been viewed as capable of "leveling the playing field," our findings identify a new way that it introduces gender biases, specifically, sexual double standards in the professional selection process. A sexy social media photo on candidates' personal social media accounts may particularly penalize female candidates' professional outcomes.

For Further Reading

Ni, M., & Zayas, V. (2023). Sexy social media photos disproportionately penalize female candidates' professional outcomes: Evidence of a sexual double standard. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology109, 104504.

Minghui Ni is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. Her research focuses on biases in the professional selection context. 

Vivian Zayas is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. Her research broadly focused on questions related to the "relational mind."