With a wealth of personal data made public and easily accessible by social media, it’s no surprise social media isn’t just for social purposes anymore. One of the ways the line between social and business is being blurred is through the use of social media in personnel selection.

According to a study done by SHRM,  about 75% of hiring managers have used social media as a screening before making a final decision on a candidate, and upwards of 35% of hiring managers say they have not hired an individual due to a red-flag found on social media (such as drug references or use, employer bashing, etc.).

As the use of social media increases for both social and business applications, it’s worth taking pause to ask: Is information on social media actually a valid screening tool? And, if so, should we use it?

What can social media really tell us about a candidate?

Researchers have found that individual’s personalities are indeed reflected (and can be detected) based on their online profiles. The language a person uses in their updates, what they like on Facebook, the pictures they post, and various other aspects of their online presence, have been linked to personality and IQ.

Social media pictures, posts, and likes have also been used to successfully predict gender, and even more obscure personal facts, like the likelihood of an individual’s parents being divorced. Further, Kluemper, Rosen, and Mossholder were able to better predict academic success based on Facebook profiles than IQ score!

A study out of Old Dominion University conducted by Cavanaugh and Landers discovered that not only are the personality traits inferred from someone’s Facebook profile a significant predictor of their job performance, but these correlations are stronger than those between the results of the traditional self-reported personality test. This all suggests there is absolutely potential to harness the data and information on Social Media sites to guide selection decisions.

But, these research findings are in their infancy and certainly not all of the connections that research has discovered should be used for selection. Take for example the fact that an individual’s intelligence has been connected to “liking” curly fries on Facebook (i.e., you are more likely to be higher IQ if you “like” curly fries). While this is a great endorsement for fast food joints, asking “Do you like curly fries?” in an interview doesn’t have much face validity and you’re unlikely to select the best candidate if you rule someone out because they haven’t liked curly fries on Facebook.

A caution on Big Data

It’s important to consider that much of this research has been done with HUGE n-sizes, (thousands of participants), which means even very small connections can be detected. So even though “liking” thunderstorms and curly fries on Facebook is related to higher IQ – we don’t suggest hiring/not hiring someone based on this.

And even those findings that are face-valid should be used with caution. These connections to personality, academic success, and job performance are often detected though computer analysis–meaning a computer program, not a human, is reading profiles to draw conclusions–and this is rarely the way hiring managers are using social media as a screening tool. And, perhaps with little surprise, it turns out we aren’t as good as the computers!

A study in the Journal of Management asked professional recruiters to evaluate the social media profiles of college students who were applying for full-time jobs after graduation, and failed to find a correlation between the recruiters’ ratings of the profiles and later job performance (based on follow-up interviews conducted months later with the now former students’ supervisors). And overall, studies using real-world data to research the connection between Social Media red-flags and actual job performance are extremely limited.

Should we use social media for selection?

Ultimately, social media has the potential to be a very powerful selection tool, and we are just figuring out exactly how to harness its power. And because it is such a large and rapidly evolving beast, our legal system hasn’t caught up. So in many instances, we are left with little guidance regarding the “right” way to use it. In fact, only 23 states have laws specifically discussing social media as it relates to employers’ access.

Perhaps the biggest ethical concern is unintended access to information. While most hiring managers are looking for red-flags on social media profiles, often they gain much more information than they are actively seeking out. Some of the information that is commonly indicated on social media includes off-limits topics: marital status, religious affiliation, sexual orisocial media in selectionentation, etc. Selecting or not selecting a candidate based on this information would absolutely open up the potential for litigation.

There are other ethical concerns that have been raised in regard to using social media in selection, such as privacy and adverse impact. Although social media is public, should employers consider information beyond what is offered by the employee? And if social media is used in selection, how does this potentially affect those who are on social media versus those not on social media differently? How do you keep the selection process fair when the amount of information yielded for each candidate is different? This is particularly a concern when using social media for recruitment as older candidates or lower socioeconomic status candidates may not be active, or present at all, on social media.

The verdict on whether or not we should use social media as a selection tool is still up for debate. But, if you currently fall on the “yes” side of this argument, our questions shifts to: how should we use social media as a selection tool?

Practical advice for using social media in selection

If your organization does decide to use social media as a screening tool, as the SHRM study suggests 43% of organizations surveyed currently do, we encourage you to take the following into consideration:

  • Know the laws that do apply. Although there may not be many, it is worthwhile to ensure the way you are using social media is not against the law. For example, in IL it is illegal to ask for employees’ and potential employees’ passwords to social media sites. We would also encourage you to anticipate other laws and potential legal issues. Use a gut check—if something doesn’t feel right or you can foresee problems with a particular practice, make adjustments to a process you can stand behind.
  • Create a process. Be consistent in the way you use social media as a screening. As with any other selection method, it should be applied consistently across candidates. This process is something that should be followed and agreed upon organization-wide. Further, document this process so there is no confusion about the way hiring managers in your organization should be approaching the use of social media.
  • Use social media as an additional data point, not a criterion. Consider allowing the candidate to explain any issues or potential red flags you come across on social media (about 40% of organizations that use social media in their screening process already do this). For example; if you find that their credentials on social media do not match their resume, ask them to explain in an interview. Perhaps their social media is not up to date or they have withheld information to increase privacy. Avoid drastic assumptions and engage in a dialogue to get the full picture. Ultimately, social media should be used as information to bolster the selection process you already have in place, not be the dominant decision maker.
  • Avoid accessing information that is not job relevant. Consider having someone uninvolved in the final decision check social media. This way, they will be able to report back on the relevant information, and leave out any extra information that the hiring manager should not be privy to. The hiring manager does not need to know religious affiliation or how many kids the candidate has. Stick to identifying red flags and information that directly applies to the candidate’s credentials (e.g., confirming the school listed on their resume).

SHRM also published a more extensive list of recommendations we suggest you check out.

Social Media is here to stay and has the potential to be a very useful tool in helping to identify and hire quality employees. If your organization hasn’t already discussed what this process will look like for them, we hope this helps to open up the discussion.

Now, let us know what you think! How have you used Social Media in the past? What do you think is the best way to utilize Social Media in the selection realm?