Social media for hiring: Promises and pitfalls

Monday, 29 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We looked at prospects of luring talent through social media last week. We identified social media as Social Network Websites (SNWs) such as Facebook, MySpace and the more professionally-oriented LinkedIn. Having discussed the origins and options, let’s focus on their promises and pitfalls in the context of hiring. This column is all about it.   Overview Based on extensive studies by Ross Slovensky and William H. Ross from the University of Wisconsin, there is an increasing trend of HR professionals using SNWs for hiring. This is in the broader context of ‘e-cruting,’ or the usage of internet for hiring decisions. According to Forrester Research Institute, 96% of all companies in the USA use the internet for their recruitment needs. According to them, 30% of new hires are from the internet. A recent survey conducted by Employment Management Association, USA, the cost-per-hire of print ads was estimated at $ 3,295 and online ads a mere $ 377. There are over 16 million resumes floating online. In addition to posting job openings on the company website, many organisations use recruiting sites such as, Jobster and JobThread. In Sri Lanka, Topjobs and several other websites are quite popular. SNW-based hiring is also increasingly becoming popular, spearheaded by the ICT organisations.   Promises for HR professionals Let’s look at why HR professionals should use SNWs for luring and hiring talent. There are three promises for them.   Promise 1: SNWs provide authentic applicant information Traditionally, HR professionals and other hiring managers relied on cover letters, resumes, application forms and sometimes interviews to initially screen job candidates. However, resumes and cover letters are often written to highlight only the best possible characteristics of the applicant; application forms and interviews also suffer from ‘impression management’ attempts. Information found in cover letters and resumes is often factually incorrect or exaggerated. As many as 41% of the 5.8 million resumes reviewed by the employment firm ADP contained errors in terms of education, employment experience, or credentials. SNWs are usually created for purposes other than securing a job. This is why HR Professionals can see that sources provide ‘honest’ (valid) information about the applicant. By examining SNW profiles of applicants, HR professionals can verify information on the resume or application form. They may even pay particular attention to information written by ‘friends’ of applicants on their SNWs. Such information may be seen as more truthful because it was not posted by the applicant and therefore may be seen as less subject to impression management attempts. A recent survey by Microsoft reports that 43% of employers say they will not hire job candidates based on ‘inappropriate comments’ written by relatives and friends. The conditions under which such employers actually attend to this factor and make decisions based on it remain a subject for continued discussion and investigation.   Promise 2: SNWs provide more complete information in a cost-effective manner With a minimal investment of time and expense, HR professionals can use SNWs to expand on job application materials and test scores to see how potential employees live their lives. As an example, LinkedIn can be used to see connections the applicant has made in the professional world and other jobs they may have held that were perhaps not listed on the application form. Facebook and MySpace show the HR professional the interests and hobbies that each applicant has. Media within these websites such as pictures and videos can give an HR recruiter insight into an applicant’s behaviour when not on the job and an idea of the person’s character. While Twitter only allows short messages to be posted, this can also be used to get an idea of an applicant’s likes, dislikes and overall character in both non-professional and professional settings.   Promise 3: Organisations must be aware of ‘negligent hiring’ legal and ethical considerations A legal doctrine of ‘negligent hiring’ has emerged in the USA that holds that organisations should conduct reasonable criminal background checks when screening applicants. A failure to do so may make the organisation partially liable for the employee’s behaviour because the employee is acting as the organisation’s agent. Of course, some attorneys might argue that illegal and immoral actions are obviously beyond the scope of what a reasonable observer would expect an organisation’s agent to perform. One aspect of a criminal background check is to do an internet search of the applicant’s web sites (as well as public records of convictions, etc. posted on the internet). Some legal experts opine that it is probably acceptable for employers to view SNW profiles that are readily available, as when the applicant has not turned on the ‘privacy settings’ available with SNWs. The simple truth is that the discovery of illegal activities on SNWs may prevent the organisation from hiring a person who will embarrass or endanger fellow employees or customers. Even if the person is not engaged in criminal behaviour, they may be engaged in questionable practices. Pitfalls HR professionals should be aware of  Having discussed three promises, let’s look at three pitfalls associated with hiring through SNWs.   Pitfall 1: SNW information is not accurate One concern about using SNW information is that it does not accurately reflect what the applicant will be like as an employee. How people behave at work may differ from how people behave away from the workplace. Further, the SNW itself exhibits its own unique situational influence. As some researchers highlighted, the social norm of many SNW sites appears to emphasise bravado, exaggeration, and outrageous behaviour. Many people post information that conforms to these norms, even if does not reflect their actual behaviour in other situations – including work. Similar observations may be made for the comments of an applicant’s friends who may be pursuing their own impression management goals. To add to the complexity, some individuals, particularly in the USA hire firms with names like ‘Reputation’ and ‘Brand-Yourself’ to help manage their online information and insure that positive information is discovered quickly and ranked much higher than negative information when search engines are used to conduct background checks.   Pitfall 2: SNW may be the wrong website Collectively, over 535 million profiles currently exist on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter; these represent a large and increasing segment of the workforce in the industrialised world (Black, 2010). However, many people have similar names, even within the same geographic area. For an employer to screen an applicant whom he or she has never met through a SNW is to invite error. Further, the applicant may never even know that he or she was rejected because of the inappropriate website of someone else with the same name. Accounts on many of SNWs can be created for free, and imitation accounts are not uncommon. Twitter attempts to solve this problem by verifying the identities of famous celebrities who hold accounts on their website; but they do not verify identities for other accounts. This means that for some people, Twitter posts may not be their actual thoughts and feelings.   Pitfall 3: Using SNW information raises multiple issues These issues associate can be fairness related. It can also be associated with legal and ethical aspects. Individuals posting information to SNWs do so for one purpose; employers using that information to make hiring decisions do so for a completely different purpose. This raises a basic issue of fairness which may make using SNW information unacceptable to society. Interestingly, a survey by Manpower reports that 56% of job applicants would view an organisation as unethical for considering their personal SNW when hiring and 43% said they would ‘feel outraged’ if a firm used their SNW information to learn more about them in order to make a hiring decision . There is an apparent similarity between bio data and SNW checks, as both measure background, history, and outside interests that are not obviously job-related. Numerous writers observe that using SNW information for hiring may compromise an applicant’s right to privacy – that is, the right to decide whether, and to whom, to disclose information in an atmosphere free from coercion or interference. Further, modern notions of privacy include not only information about the person, but any data that are transmitted or communicated, and perhaps even the communication event itself, such as the name of the intended recipient and the purpose of the message. Sometimes, privacy settings prevent strangers from seeing certain SNW profiles. In such cases, some managers ask fellow employees to log into their personal accounts, become a ‘friend’ of a job applicant and then, if the request is granted, the new ‘friend’ prints or allows a hiring manager to view the prospective employee’s profile. Some write that this practice is an invasion of not only the applicant’s privacy, but also the current employee’s right to privacy and it forces current employees to engage in misleading and fraudulent behaviours. Because this practice involves deception to obtain information, it may be legally and ethically questionable   Way forward The promises and pitfalls of hiring through social media are in front of us. I must admit that most of the examples cited are from USA, where the vibrancy of the application is much higher. Yet, with the growth of the ICT industry in Sri Lanka, SNWs can play a key role as a hiring channel. How Sri Lankan professionals effectively avoid pitfalls and gain benefits from the promises is yet to be seen. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Acting Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)