February 19, 2012
There's a perception among job seekers that material posted on Facebook and other social networking sites can only hinder their chances of employment. A dumb comment that can never be erased. That photo of you — bleary-eyed — building a beeramid with other naked people.
Those can certainly be stumbling blocks. But new research, released exclusively to "I Just Work Here," shows that a quick review of a Facebook profile can actually provide a better prediction of job success than standardized tests used for years by human resources departments around the world.
A study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that a 10-minute review of a Facebook page can yield not just red flags but also provide an unvarnished look at a job candidate and some strong clues to that person's character and personality.
Donald Kluemper, a management professor at Northern Illinois University and one of the lead researchers on the study, said that companies have used personality and IQ tests for ages to gauge the potential of job candidates. As it became clear that more companies were scanning the Internet for information on job applicants, Kluemper and his team set out to establish how much reliable data can be gleaned from such sources.
"Hiring specialists were just trying to eliminate someone who was doing something inappropriate," Kluemper said. "What we did is try to assess the personality traits in a similar way that they might be assessed by a standardized test."
Several "raters" were given two hours of training on how to evaluate a Facebook page and answer specific questions relating to personality. They would then spend five to 10 minutes evaluating pages; a total of 274 were reviewed.
This excerpt from the study shows the type of indicators they were looking for:
"Those high in agreeableness are trusting and get along well with others, which may be represented in the extensiveness of personal information posted. Openness to experience is related to intellectual curiosity and creativity, which could be revealed by the variety of books, favorite quotations or other posts showing the user engaged in new activities and creative endeavors. Extroverts more frequently interact with others, which could be represented by the number of SNW (social networking websites) friends a user has."
The researchers followed up with the job candidates after six months and got performance reviews from the supervisors of 69 of them, about 25 percent of the original group. Across the board, the study found that these relatively quick Facebook evaluations more accurately predicted success than standard tests.
"I think one of the differences is that you change the frame of reference," Kluemper said. "You're asking the rater, 'Is this person a hard worker?' On a personality test, the employee would be asked, 'How hard a worker are you?' One of the criticisms of self-reporting personality testing is that it can be faked. On a Facebook page, that's a lot harder to do."
I find this study fascinating and a harbinger of what's to come as our online lives continue to bleed into our professional ones. Companies will undoubtedly grow more strategic in the way they evaluate people, and to ignore potential gold mines of information would be absurd.
Kluemper stressed in the study and the interview that companies cannot just run out and start trying to do this kind of evaluation. There are myriad legal issues to consider. Kluemper noted, "Every question that you can't ask in a job interview is on Facebook."
I spoke with Max Drucker, chief executive and president of the California-based Social Intelligence Corp., which contracts with companies to run social media background checks on job candidates. By using such a company, employers are exposed to only the parts of a person's online profile that can legally be used in hiring decisions.
Drucker said it's no secret how much companies have begun using the Web to screen applicants. A Microsoft survey released last year found that 70 percent of recruiters and human resources professionals have rejected candidates based on information found on the Web.
But Drucker said this new study demonstrates the wealth of information, beyond just negatives, that can be mined online.
"If it's a marketing or PR or sales job, having a strong online presence may be an indicator of success," Drucker said. "If a person is applying for a technical job, participation in industry blogs or other technical locations may give a more three-dimensional view of what this job applicant is like."
But caution is more than highly recommended.
"If employers are going to use publicly available social media, I would encourage them to obtain consent from the job applicant first," Drucker said. "They also need to provide the candidate with an opportunity to dispute any disqualifying information that comes up, and they should have clear criteria for what they're looking for online."
Job seekers must be careful as well. It has become a mantra among career experts: Don't put anything online that you don't want an employer to see. Yet according to another recent Microsoft survey, only 44 percent of adults think about how online activity might affect their reputations.
It would be refreshing if people could start viewing their online profiles as an asset and be less scared about what employers might find and more proud of what they have to offer. It's also my humble guess that, as time goes on, employers will be less inclined to ding job applicants for minor online indiscretions and more apt to view the whole of what's out there.
But we're not there yet — by a long shot.
Kluemper calls the information that people leave online "behavioral residue." Given that most of us exist on terrestrial and virtual planes, it seems fair — and I'd bet more often than not beneficial — that we be judged both by what we bring to the table and what we leave behind.
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