Don't Judge a Facebook by its Cover


Using Facebook has been viewed as an easy way to screen applicants, but does it really have any value? Worse yet, does it adversely impact minority applicants?
A few years ago, after an interview with a potential employer, a student approached us with this question: “I walked into my interview at XYZ corporation, and my Facebook page was up on a big-screen TV. What’s up with that?”

We suspected many companies were beginning to use that approach to screen applicants, but the question spurred us to take a serious look at the role of using Facebook (and other social media) in the hiring process. Can surveying someone’s online persona and leisure-time activities really predict what kind of employee that person might be?
The results of our research were troubling. Not only did we find no correlation between predictions by recruiters using social media and actual job performance, but we also found the practice could result in hiring fewer minority applicants.

A misplaced faith in technology

We began our research by combing all the popular and scientific literature on this topic. We found articles in the popular media advising people to check social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter for reasons such as, “Nothing says more about who we are than our Facebook pages,” “Social media website screening tells you about an applicant’s judgment,” and “Checking social media sites is free and easy to do.” The conventional wisdom appears to be that organizations should check social media sites as a way of evaluating applicants.
Many organizations appear to be heeding the popular advice. Depending upon the survey, somewhere between 30 percent and 70 percent of organizations and recruiters report using social media to screen job applicants, and many report not hiring applicants as a result. It appears to be an easy way to determine an applicant’s “character,” and the amount of available information is just too alluring. Part of that allure may be a misplaced faith in the power of technology to provide better insights than previous less technical methods.
An examination of the literature in employee staffing and related fields turned up more questions than answers and raised concerns of adverse impact against minorities (even if unintentional). Our review of the literature left us wondering: How can an organization compare candidates when the available information is not parallel? Perhaps one applicant’s social media sites have information that allows an organization only to assess dependability, while another applicant’s information would allow the organization to assess social skills. Likewise, what if some applicants maintain social media websites and others do not?
How can this situation be handled in a way that is fair to both candidates, especially when some groups of applicants (e.g., older individuals) are less likely to maintain social media websites? Finally, how might organizations use (or try to ignore) job-irrelevant information available on websites such as one’s religion, political affiliation, gender or sexual orientation?

Testing the approach

These types of questions motivated us to conduct one of the first systematic empirical studies on the role of social media in hiring. We asked more than 400 graduating, job-seeking students to allow us to use screenshots of their Facebook Walls, info pages, photos and interests in the study.
We then asked recruiters who attended a career fair to rate the quality (e.g., knowledge, skills and abilities) of these students, using the Facebook information. A year later, we followed up with the employers to determine how the graduates were performing in their jobs.

The troubling results

[pullquote align=’right’ font=’oswald’]The results may surprise you: Facebook ratings were not good predictors of job performance. We couldn’t find any link between current job performance and the predictions of recruiters based on Facebook pages. That is, Facebook ratings were correlated essentially zero with job performance.[/pullquote]
Results also suggested that African-American and Hispanic applicants tended to be scored lower than white applicants, and males were scored lower than females. So, not only does it appear that Facebook assessments do not predict job performance, they might also negatively affect the diversity of individuals hired by organizations. In some cases, recruiters gave low ratings to applicants with odd profile pictures, sexual references, religious quotes and “non-white” names.

The takeaway

What can organizations learn from this study? One thing is clear: Organizations should be very cautious about using information drawn from social media as part of the hiring process. At best, it is unlikely to identify the best performers; at worst, it can result in adversely affecting ethnic minorities in hiring practices.
Until we know how to conduct more effective social media checks, organizations might rely on more traditional “tests” to hire individuals. For example, organizations might use interviews that focus on the behavior of job applicants in work settings or tests of important job skills (e.g., customer service skills, writing skills). If organizations want to use social media information, they should first determine whether recruiter or manager assessments of such information are related to valued outcomes such as job performance. For example, it might be possible to test out social media checks with current employees to see if their online information is related to their job performance.
Of course, more questions remain to be answered in the area of social media. How do applicants react to these checks, especially if they have to “friend” someone in the company to which they are applying? How does demographic information that was previously difficult to obtain (e.g., religion, political affiliation) affect hiring decisions? We are planning several future studies to explore those questions.
The results of our research are published in the Journal of Management.
Phil Roth is a professor in the Department of Management and has been studying employee selection for more than 20 years. Jason Thatcher is director of the Social Analytics Institute and professor of management information systems. Chad Van Iddekinge is an associate professor of management at Florida State University. He completed his Ph.D. at Clemson in industrial and organizational psychology and continues to work with Clemson faculty.
To access articles about this research in Forbes and TIME:

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