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Using Facebook to Screen Job Candidates:
Pitfalls and Promises

Most people have a keen desire to peek into the minds and souls of others. We all have the need to predict what other people will do in any given situation.  Every so often we hear about the creativity of employers attempting to do this.  Case in point is the recent report of employers demanding that job candidates open their Facebook accounts for inspection.

Since social media has become so prevalent in our lives, employers have been capitalizing on using it to find out information on job candidates. In a Microsoft survey (Brackenbury and Wong, 2012) HR Professionals in the U.S. in 2010 reported:

  • 79% reviewed online information of job candidates;
  • 84% said that online information was one of the top two factors they considered when reviewing candidate information; and
  • 70% rejected a candidate based on online information, with the top factor for rejection being unsuitable photos and videos online.

Moreover, a just published research study (Kluemper, Rosen and Mossholder, 2012) showed that trained examiners of Facebook pages produce slightly more accurate evaluations of the big five personality measures (Agreeableness, Extroversion, Emotional Stability, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness) than self- report ratings in predicting supervisor job performance evaluations.


Taken together, the practice and science of employment screening may be converging on the use of more non-traditional measures of job candidate’s competency.

Unlike a background checks, assessing candidate suitability through a review of criminal activity, Facebook inspections are about inferring candidates’ personal characteristics and predicting future job behavior. In effect, this is no longer a “screen” but a surrogate personality assessment and should be treated as such. While the legal privacy issues will certainly be debated in the judicial courts and those of public opinion, let’s look at if Facebook could be used as a valid pre employment assessment.

What is Being Measured?  

First and foremost, what are employers looking for when viewing a job candidate’s Facebook page? The global construct being measured is Judgment, or in this case, poor judgment.   Employers are looking for signs of immaturity, foolishness and poor decision-making.

We have all seen or heard evidence of this—people posting comments and pictures that make us cringe. The assumption is that if job candidates demonstrate poor judgment on their Facebook page, they will exercise poor judgment on the job. Those that disclose all the intimate details of their lives, will they disclose confidential information about their employer. And those that are highly critical and opinionated criticize their new employer on Facebook?

Integrity is another construct that employers are apparently measuring.  Are job candidates engaging in illegal or illicit behavior? Written or pictorial evidence of drug use is probably the best example of this.  

Employers could also evaluate personality characteristics to gain insight candidates’ negative attributes. Examples of such characteristics are being extremely colorful, risky, and emotionally unstable.  These are ones that have the potential of being evaluated through photos, videos and written comments.

What About Job Relatedness?

While it may be interesting to know that prospective employees like to party, jump out of airplanes, and do and write stupid things, employers need to make the correct inferential leap that this impacts job performance.  The leap of logic should be rather short and to the extent possible, unconditional.  

It may be more appropriate to screen out candidates who appear in sexually suggestive photos if they are applying for a teaching or coaching job than if they are applying for a call center sales position.  It is stretching the logic to an extreme that candidates who behave badly at parties may then not be able to function well at work. While requiring that teachers and coaches need to be positive role models for children and that publicly displaying negative behavior may indeed be job related.

What About Measurement Accuracy?

For any characteristic that employers want to measure using Facebook information will require some standardization, so that reliable measures can be obtained.  Pre employment screening standards are not like pornography’s “I know it when I see it”, but require the establishment of guidelines on how to translate candidates’ written comments, photos and videos into job relevant factors.

The research study by Kluemper, et al. (2012) clearly demonstrates that evaluators need to be trained.  It is doubtful they would have obtained the same results if they used untrained evaluators, who would be more prone inaccurate evaluations. Simply telling your recruiters to use their own best judgment will negate any benefit of this as a screening process and can could result in an indefensible case against potential litigation.

Employers who want to use Facebook information should:
•    Operationally define what they want to measure,
•    Develop guidelines and evaluation rules, and
•    Train and assess the accuracy of evaluators.

Wait and See

Early adopters of the Facebook screening are not your large established companies.  They tend to be smaller, non-traditional employers. Given the lack of legal precedence, most companies are staying away from asking candidates for their Facebook password.  

But candidate information that is readily available on the internet is fair game. If you are going to use this information as an employment screen, then be sure that you put into place some structure on making this evaluation as reliable and valid as possible.


References

Kluemper, D.H., Rosen, P.A., and Mossholder, K.W. (2012). Social Networking Websites, Personality Ratings, and the Organizational Context: More Than Meets the Eye? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00881.x

Brackenbury, I. and Wong, T. Online Profile and Reputation Perception Study. Microsoft Corporation, 2012.


I hope you find this informative.  Please contact me to learn more about any of the ideas presented.

Kind regards,

Carl Greenberg, Ph.D.
President
Carl.Greenberg@PragmaticHR.com

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