Friday, 20 May 2011

Hiring by online profile: perils and challenges for the networked recruiter

(This post forms part of this month's focus on younger people in the workforce.)

Whether it's holiday snaps, opinions, or your work history, it's likely that you use a social network site (SNS) to express some things about you. This is especially true for the young; membership of Facebook, the largest SNS, continues to show a skew towards ages twenty and under. It's unsurprising that recruiters might use these sites to find out more about job applicants; a 2009 poll indicates 45% of 2600 hiring managers polled had done just that. Now, a new paper by Victoria Brown and E. Daly Vaughn surveys the risks and consequences of allowing online discoveries to influence hiring decisions.

The attractions are clear: recruiters get free, quickly accessible, and otherwise hidden information about applicants. The 2009 poll suggests that 35% of the managers rejected candidates due to SNS evidence, such as unwanted habits or information that contradicts their resume. The evidence can also support candidates by corroborating resumes; employment-centred sites such as LinkedIn exist partly to perform that function.

The first issue Brown and Vaughn raise is perceived invasiveness: trawling through individual's profiles (and those of their friends, just a few clicks away) can feel like snooping. By harming the candidate's recruitment experience, now recognised as a valuable 'pre-onboarding' phase, this can undermine relations once in post.

Secondly, is it fair? An SNS user who shares freely may be sifted out in favour of a counterpart who is cannier at selecting settings, but no better at the job. Moreover, many SNS's detail non-work behaviour, and generalising from here to the workplace may be unwarranted. We can also fall prey to drawing conclusions on the bases of a small sample of 'recent activity'.

Most importantly, the observed behaviours must relate to job criteria to be justifiable for use in employment decisions. An appropriate case would be assessing uploaded images created by a graphic designer, to establish the breadth and quality of their output. But in other cases, information has to be tied to some higher-order construct.

The good news is that some evidence exists that we can construe personality reasonably well on the basis of SNS profiles. But for areas such as verbal communication, we don't have that evidence. (Personally I'm happy to lapse into Facebook patois when I'm on-site. Sincerely sharing communication conventions, or ironically playing at it? Like the Simpsons, I don't even know any more.) The authors also worry that SNS screening may be very prone to biases, given that SNS data gives ready indication of race, age, disability and other factors that shouldn't be considerations in screening decisions.

The authors suggest organisations should develop policies on SNS use in hiring. They recommend forbidding opportunistic online reviewing of some candidates but not others, and listing appropriate criteria, with standardised rubrics that can be used to evaluate candidates. Even then, where there is no clear evidence legitimising decisions, the authors suggest it may be better for organisations to ban the practice entirely.

ResearchBlogging.orgBrown, V., & Vaughn, E. (2011). The Writing on the (Facebook) Wall: The Use of Social Networking Sites in Hiring Decisions Journal of Business and Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10869-011-9221-x


  1. I think it is sweet and laudable that the authors are concerned SNS screening may be very prone to biases. It seems to assume other methods are not. Having Read Mark Cook yet again I am pretty sure any thing a human or a group of humans do on this planet is going to demonstrate a bias of sorts....Even if that bias is a belief enough time spent with numbers and high end computing power can eliminate bias.

  2. Hi Bruce

    Fair points all! I think the concern of the author in this case is that there has been a systematic honing of the cv sifting process to reduce the influence of some of the more obvious biases - not being obliged to put date of birth or photos, for instance. The concern is that the SNS' circumvent this and put this information back on the table at an early stage.

    Of course, later stages of the process such as face-to-face meetings are bound to introduce these issues, but the hope is that with greater psychological investment in the possibilities of the candidates at this stage, and with more objective foundations already in place, the influence of these biases are attenuated.

    That´s the theory, anyway. Thanks for reminding us not to take objectivity for granted!

  3. This topic interests me and is the theme of my current essay. Have you read any other interesting articles regarding social media (particularly facebook)in the workplace? I'm not finding much out there. Cheers.