Is Facebook an effective screening tool?

Profiles can be accurate, says study, but experts cautious
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/13/2012

When Ian Buck is evaluating job candidates, he checks out online platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to see how they are represented online.

As vice-president of strategy, earned media, at advertising agency Sid Lee in Toronto, he wants to see what people are saying and how they’re interacting.

“Absolutely, every single person I ever looked at, I checked out online,” said Buck. “The online persona of people is really important and people should have the expectation that anytime they’re going in for a job, they’re going to get checked out online, so make sure your personal brand reflects who you are and what you want it to reflect.”

It’s surprising how much stuff people put online, he said.

“That’s the beauty of online, from a recruiter’s perspective. If people put stuff publicly online that, to me, is fair game.”

That kind of screening approach is backed by a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology that looked at the psychometric properties of the “big five” personality traits — conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, openness to experience and extroversion — assessed through social networking sites.

The study looked at Facebook profiles of 274 university students to determine whether their self-evaluations and “other-ratings” (by three evaluators) were consistent and affected hirability.

A small followup study looked at whether these two types of ratings could predict job performance.

The idea was to take a look at Facebook and determine if people leave behind behavioural residue that indicates something about their personality, said Kevin Mossholder, a professor in the department of management at Auburn University in Alabama and co-author of the study.

“If you look at something like Facebook as an indication of your life, some academicians call that biodata,” he said. “There’s a history of biodata being used to predict academic success, future job performance, career success — and Facebook is almost a latter day version of biodata.”

The results suggest evaluators trained to assess the profiles, based on things such as the frequency and content of posts or number of friends, can “provide reasonably reliable estimates” of the big five personality traits.

While self-rated personality tests are commonly used for employment selection, Facebook ratings are a stronger predictor, said Donald Kluemper, assistant professor in the department of management at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., and co-author of the study. “This is a more robust way to assess personality than a self-rated test.”

Self-rated personality tests are very easy to fake, he said, and while people can put favourable presentations of themselves on their social networking profiles, the profiles are still “somewhat accurate representations of themselves.”

The analyses revealed the number of Facebook friends a person had correlated with both self-rated and other-rated extroversion. And for a person to “fake” extroversion, they’d have to post pictures of themselves in social situations or find people who would agree to be their friends, said Kluemper.

The sample size of the followup study was considerably smaller, with 56 supervisors, so it’s an exaggeration to say Facebook can predict job performance, said Mossholder. However, the study did find some Facebook personality ratings correlated to performance.

“Self-rated personality in both studies was predictive of job performance but the Facebook ratings were strong predictors,” said Kluemper.

Implications for employers

So, does this mean employers should be taking a closer look at the Facebook profiles of job candidates? Maybe when it comes to reducing the time-intensive nature of screening for personality, said the study.

“Whereas interview-based personality assessments are time-consuming, the average assessment of a social networking profile took five to 10 minutes and did not require a respondent’s presence. Evaluating personality via (social networking sites) may be more cost-effective than more traditional methods.”

Recruiters are going to use all the tools at their disposal to make the best decision possible, said Kim Benedict, head of sales at recruitment firm Head2Head in Toronto.

“Though, I think when you look at all of the assessment tools and the technology and pure science, I find it hard to believe that being able to correlate what somebody did on the weekend determines or is a good indicator of how successful they are in a particular job function.”

The sophisticated tools companies tend to invest in when it comes to personality assessments appear to have more science and logic behind them, said Benedict.

“There’s certainly something to be said about how social media will have an impact, all of the channels, how we are using them from a personal and professional perspective and that there will be some level of determination. But as to whether or not organizations would start to use this as a tool in their hiring decisions remains to be seen.”

Legal concerns

There is no legal barrier to an employer accessing information in the public domain, whether via LinkedIn, YouTube or Facebook, said Keith Burkhardt, an employment and labour law lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz in Toronto.

Employers are even allowed to ask for the password to a Facebook account, he said, though Facebook recently cautioned employers about making such a request, saying it could lead to “unanticipated legal liability.”

However, the norms of society have dictated those types of requests are offside, said Burkhardt, and a large part of the population would view it as inappropriate and almost akin to asking for the keys to your house.

But when it comes to human rights concerns, that’s where the rubber hits the road for employers, he said.

“As soon as they have additional information from a Facebook page or YouTube video, (they) may find out things that are not directly relevant to the job but are potentially relevant to saying something about a person’s character or... a health issue.”

And if a candidate does not get the job and he knows the employer had access to his Facebook account, there may be a perception it was taken into account in the hiring decision.

There is some information an employer needs to determine if a person is the right candidate, said Burkhardt.

“It’s what you do with the other extraneous information, that you gather either unintentionally or you gather intentionally, is where employers can fall down.”

The best approach is to have two different streams operating parallel to each other, said Burkhardt. That means having one person looking online, gathering data and reporting back anything that’s relevant to the job being applied for, and another doing the hiring.

“If you can create that wall between who knows everything and who’s actually making the decision, the employer will have an added layer of protection to be able to say they did not consider a certain posting that a person made on Facebook or a video they saw on YouTube.”

In the end, Buck said he would rather make the analysis himself, in-person.

“When I’m recruiting, I have one chance to get this person right, otherwise it’s six months or a year of not having the right person on the job, so I trust myself more than I would trust a personality test.”

Face-to-face time is important when it comes to personality, he said.

“How you interact with your friends is not necessarily how you interact at work. I think in-person would still be more important.”

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