Facebook is a bad way to rate potential employees, study finds

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Privacy, Twitter

Drunk woman. Image courtesy of ShutterstockPotential employers Google us. They pore over our tweets. They scan our Facebook postings.

They want to see our truly embarrassing internet gaffes before they let us step through the door for an interview.

In a 2010 survey of 825 staffing professionals, 73% of respondents said they use social media platforms such as Facebook to recruit applicants.

What should be more worrisome to those of us with a certain joie de vivre style - call it joie de postings - is the number of managers who choose not to hire applicants based on what they discover in their social media research.

In a 2012 CareerBuilder survey of more than 2,000 hiring managers and human resources professionals, 34% reported that they had decided against hiring applicants based on what they uncovered in social media.

To be precise, this is what those employers found in the postings made by people they didn't hire:

  • Candidate posted provocative/inappropriate photos/info - 49%
  • There was information about the candidate drinking or using drugs - 45%
  • Candidate had poor communication skills - 35%
  • Candidate bad mouthed previous employer - 33%
  • Candidate made discriminatory comments related to race, gender, religion, or other - 28%
  • Candidate lied about his or her qualifications - 22%

Those posting sins sound bad, don't they? They sound like a pretty good indication that an employee will not work out well. Those postings would likely convince many of us not to hire the sinner in question.

But a new study published by Florida State University's Journal of Management suggests that we might be making mistakes when we pass people over for Facebook postings or the like, given the lack of correlation between a) social media profiles that look pretty bad and b) the subject's actual work performance and whether their managers keep them in the job long-term.

For the study, "Social Media for Selection? Validity and Adverse Impact Potential of a Facebook-Based Assessment," researchers asked recruiters to evaluate the Facebook profiles of college students who were applying for full-time jobs.

They then followed up with supervisors to find out how the new hires fared, tracking supervisors' ratings of their employees' job performance, supervisors' intentions with regards to retaining or letting those employees go, and actual employee turnover.

What they found was that recruiters' evaluations of these people, based on their Facebook profiles, was no prediction of their performance or whether they'd keep their jobs - at least, the Facebook profiles were no better at prognostication than more traditional predictors, including the employees' cognitive ability, self-efficacy and personality.

(In psychologists' terms, self-efficacy is the extent or strength of a person's belief in his or her own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.)

Furthermore, the researchers actually discovered a pernicious streak of bias, evidenced in Facebook ratings that tended to favor female and white job applicants.

The takeaway, from the research report:

The overall results suggest that organizations should be very cautious about using social media information such as Facebook to assess job applicants.

Researchers Chad H. Van Iddekinge, Stephen E. Lanivich, Philip L. Roth and Elliott Junco write that human resource professionals' reliance on social media is easy to understand: it's out there, free for the picking, unlike interviews and work sample tests, which are costly and time-consuming to set up and administer.

And Other recent research has pointed to social media content as providing a quick, easy peek at job applicants' real selves.

But checking out job applicants' intimate postings can potentially put employers into a questionable position when it comes to defending the legality of their selection processes, given that employers may discover, and find impossible to ignore, information about ethnicity, age, physical disabilities, religious beliefs, marital status, or sexual orientation, while blog or Twitter postings or other written material can reveal indications of mental health issues, substance abuse, arrests, or other "life challenges," the researchers note.

Facebook post - magnifying glassOther problems with vetting job applicants based on social media content is that applicants have limited control over what others post to their profiles.

As far as gender bias goes, the researchers note that females have less tendency to post material about sexual exploits or substance abuse; tend to have higher verbal and writing ability that comes across in audio, video or written social media material; and tend to post more photos of themselves smiling and with others - signs pointing to what psychologists call "agreeableness."

They found that Hispanic and Black subgroups, meanwhile, have a greater tendency to participate in social and political causes and to have that reflected in social media - something that may well set them apart as "other" in hiring managers' minds and may influence recruiters to give their Facebook profiles lower ratings than profiles of those who are more like the recruiters themselves.

In other words, people often hire people who are like them - a recipe for disaster with regards to diversity in the workplace.

Given these and other limitations of basing hiring decisions on Facebook profiles and other social media content, the researchers are strongly recommending against the practice - at least until reliable, valid methods for collecting and evaluating the content get ironed out.

What do you think? Do you, or others you know of, suspect that you've been unfairly looked over for a job based on your social media selves?

It's hard to imagine that employers will ever stop basing hiring decisions on information that we ourselves willingly post, that's free and easy for them to access, and that seems, at least on the face of it, to provide a good look at our "real" selves.

But given this thoughtful study, there certainly seem to be compelling reasons to take a cold, hard look at what we really can learn about people on Facebook, Twitter and other online venues, as opposed to what we think we can learn.

Please share your views in the comments section below.

Images of drunk woman courtesy of Shutterstock.

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16 Responses to Facebook is a bad way to rate potential employees, study finds

  1. Wayne · 639 days ago

    Okay, but what if an employer ignores bad behavior on publically available social media when making a hire, and that hire turns out badly. Won't that put the employer in bad light?

  2. Kurt Van Conant · 639 days ago

    What about all the "endorsing" on LinkedIn? How do employer look at those endorsements?
    I have seen one person endorse another person on a particular skill set while the skill set being endorsed was in such disarray, it took a 3rd person to come in and straighten it out.
    I personally have had people endorse me for stuff they couldn't possibly know how well or poorly I do.

    • Linked In endorsements are useless, people endorse others when they dont even know them, total waste of time, however, LinkedIn recommendations very valuable as that is a personalised recommendation.

  3. Anonymous · 639 days ago

    Yes - I feel that I was overlooked for a promotion because I posted something about introverts. A week or so later, I was told the position required an extrovert.

  4. TonyG · 639 days ago

    We all do stupid things as we are growing up and learning; that learning never stops.

    If I was to be hiring (which I am not) then I would Google etc the prospective candidates. If there was a pattern of many things I considered inappropriate over a period of time, then I might not consider them (if I had plenty of candidates to choose from).

    For some, it makes for an interesting question or two at interview; such as "what were the circumstances of that picture", "what do you think of it now". For all I know (until I ask) that drunken picture in strange clothing may have been part of a charity stunt that raised money for a good cause.

    Some of the rest depends on the job. People with Aspergers, for example, do say inappropriate things, so they may not be great for a customer facing post. However a recent study has shown that they are better than average at software testing - a job that can be difficult to fill.

    So for the majority, I would treat this as background; although no h*ll raiser, I did things a long time ago that fortunately are not documented for posterity. So I am in no position to pass an absolute judgement.

  5. Tim · 639 days ago

    Having been an employment background investigator, the use of social media is valuable as an integrity checker, but it is never a single determinator. Social media is a snapshot of a person in their true self - not the public/interview masl so many people wear. Once an applicant submits the employment application and questionnaire, a search of public records - and social media - is conducted and evaluated against each other and the information used for a later interview as integrity markers. I have found outright lies and omissions that social media validates. And I have found very quite interesting info that at first glance would be a deal breaker but later vettes out as Ok. Social media is just 1/6 of a complete picture. And must be treated as such. All information - especially public records (courts) - must be validated against other research and not taken as a single determining factor. I have found lies/misinformation in such public records as well.

    • TK · 639 days ago

      I disagree that social media is a snapshot of someone's true self. It's a snapshot of them in a different (usually non work related) context, but it's not necessarily who they really are. In my experience it can be just as much a mask as the persona they present at interview. Employers are well advised to take it with a grain of salt.

  6. Alan · 639 days ago


    "Social media is a snapshot of a person in their true self".

    Why is it any more real or fake that any other presentation of self? SM is just another stage in which people present themselves for particular purposes to particular audiences. The meaning is dependent on the context. An online search over a very short period of time gives you very limited access to the context so it is likely you are misreading much of what you see about other people online.

    • Tim · 639 days ago

      In my opinion and experience, Facebook, for example, is a more informal and personal sharing space than, say, LinkedIn, where people are putting forward their best professional appearence. I have referred to FB before as a persons virtual scrapbook and diary - their not focused on how the public will view them - its where their thoughts and memories are kept and primarily shared with close personal friends. But it also has the potential to be a far-reaching public sharing forum as well depending on their control settings. But, again, as stated elsewhere above, its just 1 consideration out of many that can not be taken at face value until verified by other indfependant sources.

  7. David · 639 days ago

    A person of ambitious and somewhat cunning nature could also craft an online persona that is totally unrepresentative of their true selves.

  8. Anonymous · 639 days ago

    way to rate potential employees, study finds:
    I feel like this study is missing the mark or omitting very important details. It seems to me that many recruiters and hiring managers use social media profiles to "weed out" candidates based on the criteria mentioned in the article (i.e. inappropriate comments, drug/alcohol use, etc.), not necessarily predict performance. This is no different than using personality as an indicator in the selection process. In the absence of social media, if I go strictly off an interview, I wouldn't hire a pompous jerk even if s/he were more than capable of doing the job. Enter social media, if I discover that someone makes racist/offcolor/sexist remarks on their social media, which they realize isn't necessarily private, I likewise wouldn't hire them. As a management level employee, it is important for me to create a culture free of bigotry and to also protect the company's image. This includes NOT hiring people who have the potential to be ticking time bombs. Does the name Justine Sacco ring a bell? I agree with the above comment - social media is an important integrity checker, not a single determiner!

  9. Susan Breidenbach · 639 days ago

    Similarly, interviews are a notoriously bad way to evaluate potential employees, and yet employers continue to place enormous weight on them. Hubris? I do think that as businesses get more social, social media literacy is going to become increasingly important for knowledge workers.

  10. Anonymous · 639 days ago

    All parents should stress to their kids the importance of good behavior on line, as it may well influence their ability to find a good job! Girls seem more amenable to this than boys, so perhaps in the not too distant future, employers will hire more women than men.

  11. Definitely agree on most points and we can all argue that we are for privacy and that a lot of people like to have "fun" with Social Media. But the truth is that it is a good way to rate whether or not they care enough to manage their privacy settings or better yet, just filter their audience for updates so that they make a good impression to people who do not know them or might stumble across their profile. If you are an employer who encourages your employees to tag or mention your company in their profile, you may want to consider the impression they have on their audience. This can be especially true for PR or Social Media agencies or companies with inside sales people. But I am bias... I help the recruiting team at a software sales company recruit employees using social media to source, but not to qualify - unless the job is related to social media management. I also help the employees make the most of their employee experience. Part of my job includes educating new hires on "best practices" for public profiles, but there is no mandate and there is no policy. Love this piece and I wrote one similarly a couple years ago when there was so much buzz around employers asking for passwords. Check it out on whyworkatvocus.com/blog.

  12. Social media checking of potential candidates very important these days as resumes cannot be relied upon. They do not always show true dates, or quals, and also, so many are put together by professional resume writing companies (a complete waste of money in my opinion), so is not even the true words of the candidates so social media gives a much clearer picture to the type of person you could be recruiting.

  13. "checking out job applicants' intimate postings" hilarious given that sm is public. Other hilarious line "problems with vetting job applicants based on social media content is that applicants have limited control over what others post to their profiles". Clearly the author is unaware of the setting section of facebook. (just try posting something on my timeline) IF YOU DON'T WANT IT ON THE FRONT PAGE OF THE NEWSPAPER THEN DON'T POST IT IN A PUBLIC FORUM. Hiring is about trusting someone so bad judgement is of course a factor when assessing a personal brand and who represents your company.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.