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Summary:

Most of us have social networking profiles these days, and though survey results differ on the exact percentage, a whole lot of hiring managers and recruiters can’t resist taking a peek at them. But do people get an accurate picture of others’ personalities from their profiles?

Using social networking in hiring

Most of us have social networking profiles these days, and though survey results differ on the exact percentage, a whole lot of hiring managers and recruiters can’t resist taking a peek at them. And of course, the temptation to check out a candidate’s Facebook page is even stronger with a remote team, where you may have limited or no face-to-face contact with the person you’re considering hiring.

But do people get an accurate picture of others’ personalities from their social networking profiles? Is the practice of trawling through online profiles particularly subject to our biases and prejudices? Two psychologists from Auburn University have published a paper looking into the issue.

The study by Victoria Brown and E. Daly Vaughn in Journal of Business and Psychology was written up recently on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog and suggests that while a quick look at a candidate’s profile may feel harmless, there are actually pitfalls to the practice.

Previous research has found, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that when it comes to our level of extroversion and openness, social networking profiles actually give visitors a fairly accurate portrait of our personalities (though we hide our neuroticism). But that accuracy depends on seeing a fairly long slice of our activity history, and Vaughn and Brown warn that with quick looks “we can also fall prey to drawing conclusions on the bases of a small sample of ‘recent activity’.”

Even more troubling is the likelihood that getting a look at the person you’re considering hiring may bring out your unconscious biases, according to the BPS blog.

The authors also worry that SNS [social networking site] 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 final conclusion? Though it might be tempting to take a look at a potential hire online, the authors argue that you should probably resist, recommending companies forbid “opportunistic online reviewing of some candidates but not others, and listing appropriate criteria,” such as viewing work samples on a graphic designer’s profile. They conclude “it may be better for organizations to ban the practice entirely.”

Is sneaking a peek at a candidate’s social networking profile helpful, or invasive and prone to bias?

Image courtesy Flickr user Robert S. Donovan

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  1. Fire is hot but how many of us get burned before we believe it?

  2. Definitely not helpful and prone to bias. How a person chooses to act in their free time ‘shouldn’t’ play any part in their qualifications for a job, but we know it can and does.

  3. Shaleen Shah Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    I think that if a company want to get a clear picture of who they are hiring through social networking sites, they should do it at LinkedIn. Facebook is mostly used for personal reasons and truth be told, just because someone posted pictures of last night’s party doesn’t mean that person is incapable of working on your project. If companies want to be sure that the person they’re hiring can be trusted, I’d say do a thorough background check and go for criminal records instead of peeking at someone’s personal life. Just my two cents here.

    1. The correlation between criminal convictions and excelling at one’s job might only be relevant to law enforcement. Then again, I don’t know any graphic designers who have been convicted and I know plenty I wouldn’t trust.

  4. It’s legal nonsense. The argument is that all people are biased and incapable of avoiding that bias, so if they can’t prove you’re discriminating, they’ll create a novel theory like “disparate impact” to show the choice of where you recruit and how you do so proves you’re ignoring qualified candidates and thus deserve to be sanctioned by the government.

    The argument goes that you can’t use Facebook to hire someone, but you can use it to fire someone? Unless they’re talking about work with other co-workers, than it’s covered by the NLRB. Makes me want to put on eye makeup and get in front of a sheet, crying, “leave Facebook alone!”

  5. So instead of getting an accurate portrayal of someone’s personality through their SNS profiles, I should base my hiring decision solely on a rehearsed and controlled scenarios like a job interview?

    I check out FB and Twitter to screen candidates. If they have pictures of themselves at a party that wouldn’t fly in the workplace, I’m realistic enough not write them off. That’s idiocy, not bias.

    However, you ever read someone’s Twitter or FB wall where they drop racist, homophobic, sexist, ageist, et al comments and thoughts? Yeah, you won’t hear that in a job interview, but I’m not going to gamble that those thoughts won’t negatively affect their job performance.

    Liberal use of the word retard? No, thanks.

    A month long FB wall where they bitch about their boss? No, thanks.

    A graphic designer with a Twitter feed that shows involvement in the community? Yes, please.

    We’re at a point where if you have public SNS profiles, instead of locked or private, you should be prepared for being researched when applying for jobs.

    I’m going to heartily disagree with Ron and Shaleen; how a person spends their free time does indicate whether they are qualified for a job.

  6. I wholeheartedly disagree with the practice of viewing social profiles (other than work related ones such as LinkedIn) during any phase of the recruitment life cycle (screening, interviewing, hiring or post-hire.) Even though these profiles may be ‘public’ their contents should not be considered when it comes to employment. In my former life as an HR professional for 10+ years, I refused to look at anything other than LinkedIn. Interpretation is far too subjective. Much like when doing credit checks or driving record checks – one employer could view any credit ding or traffic violation as grounds for not hiring someone, while the next employer may only consider bankruptcy or moving violations as grounds. The entire hiring process is really a joke (few people will say stupid or controversial things during an interview or give a reference that will say something negative) but it’s what’s out there. At the very least interviews and references are given with a certain expectation. That same expectation does not necessarily exist when it comes to personal social profiles. Just saying “well, they should know that employers will check” is not enough. At the very least, people should have to give permission. Hiring decisions should be made based on job-related criteria ONLY. Has this person somehow demonstrated that they can accomplish these or similar duties? That’s it.

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