Why candidates’ social media profiles are a waste of time for recruiters

There is little to no correlation for recruiters between a job candidate’s social media profile and potential on-the-job performance or retention levels, according to UNSW Business School research

Since the advent of social media, employers and recruiters have been known to examine candidates’ social media profiles as part of the recruitment process. Opinions vary about the ethics of the practice, but very little is known about whether it actually provides employers with accurate indications of a candidate’s suitability for the position, future performance, or length of stay in a position.

Dr Liwen Zhang, a lecturer in the School of Management at UNSW Business School and her colleagues have created three studies in order to produce some answers to these questions. Using Facebook sites as their source, the experiments covered:

1. A content analysis of job seekers’ social media sites,
2. Whether job seekers’ social media information is related to recruiter evaluations, and
3. Whether structuring social media assessments affects criterion-related validity.

“We tried to standardise the process to help improve the validity of these assessments. We provided training to recruiters, and provided more standardised evaluation forms, and tried to have multiple recruiters to assess the same applicants,” says Dr Zhang, who recently presented a BusinessThink Rising Stars webinar on Facebook Assessments for Hiring: Opening Pandora’s Box.

"But the results show that this does not really appear to improve the prediction of future job behaviours or withdrawal intentions.”

Do recruiters check out candidates’ social media profiles?

So the belief of some recruiters in the utility of accessing candidates’ social media is not borne out by the studies, and Dr Zhang urges a cautious approach to the practice in advance of more research in the area. But the studies also throw up more general questions about the practice.

Recruiters understandably want to get to the “real” person who might not be revealed in a resumé or an interview. What, for example, of a candidate who reveals racist attitudes on their social media: something which would surely be a concern in our increasingly diverse workplaces?

“Applicants’ discriminatory posts and behaviours are often not welcomed at the workplace,” says Dr Zhang. “We categorise such behaviours and statements as ‘information that may be a concern to an organisation’. According to behavioural consistency theory, I think it could be fair for organisations to review this information from social media and use it in staffing decisions. However, if recruiters use applicants’ ethnicity or marriage status information obtained from social media sites, this will raise legal concerns.”

Of course, if candidates don’t want their social media accessed by recruiters, they can change their privacy settings accordingly (although few do). “There are some theories and conceptual papers suggesting that recruiters may be suspicious about job candidates with incomplete information, for example, missing social media profiles,” says Dr Zhang. 

Examining an applicants’ Facebook profile is like opening a Pandora’s box for recruiters. Image: Shutterstock

And while she is not aware of any recruiters directly insisting on access to candidates’ social media, “we do see recruiters [effectively] demanding access in various ways, such as using a social media profile login to create an application profile, or to sign a consent agreement.”

“When anyone examines an applicants’ Facebook profile, it just looks like they are opening a Pandora’s box,” says Dr Zhang.

What do recruiters really do?

Anita Ziemer is the MD of recruitment specialists the Slade Group, a company with more than 50 years’ experience in talent acquisition.

“When this practice comes up for discussion in working groups or industry forums amongst recruiters and employers, there is generally a wide range of views. In our own business we have been very prescriptive about why we don’t and don’t advocate for this practice,” she says.

The basic problem for Ziemer is that the practice of examining a candidate’s social media is a slippery slope towards falling foul of anti-discrimination Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) legislation. In her own company’s practice, she insists on strict adherence to this legislation, and always seeks to educate her clients to do the same.

“Furthermore, what people elect to do in their own time, outside of work hours should not be open to subjective interpretation by hiring managers, employers or recruiters.”

Work discrimination-min.jpg
Discrimination based on women’s likelihood to be coming into childbearing age still comes up in interviews. Image: Shutterstock

Ziemer cites a number of examples, such as a brilliant young warehouse manager, who had tattoos from shoulders to ankles but never wore clothes that revealed them, or a marketing manager who was rejected for a role because of a Facebook picture of her standing on her front porch in an ocelot bikini.

“[British World War Two leader] Winston Churchill was probably a depressive, but none of these features of their personal lives or backgrounds impacted their ability to do their roles, meet KPIs, gain promotions or build trusted working relationships,” she says.

Recruiters don’t fare any better, in Ziemer’s mind, if the justification for examining candidates’ social media is connected to the idea of company culture.

“Culture is sometimes a veiled way of saying, we only hire ‘people like us’, and doesn’t actually have depth of meaning regarding more meaningful personal characteristics,” says Ziemer, who cites an example of a senior executive who was discounted for a CEO role because they had once entered a well-known reality TV programme as a contestant.

“Discrimination based on women’s likelihood to be coming into childbearing age still comes up as a veiled screening question, and ‘attractiveness’ for reception roles is sadly still a thing, though far more rarely seen these days.”

Social media privacy-min.jpg
Candidates should change privacy settings if they don’t want their social media accessed by recruiters. Image: Shutterstock

Ziemer does conduct Google searches, though, in one very limited circumstance: when a candidate is being shortlisted for a senior role in government or a publicly listed company. “Relevant media coverage over relevant critical incidents may uncover a matter that will in the future affect a person’s ability to build trusted working relationships. This may lead to a conversation with that person to discover more about the reported incident and then by mutual agreement agree to continue or discontinue the hiring process,” says Ziemer.

“Our observation is that the more sophisticated the employer, the less likely they are to practice discrimination based on immaterial matters. That does, however, require advanced HR and recruitment practices that are organisation-wide and embedded.”

Dr Zhang concludes that current research findings pose a question mark on whether the approach of accessing candidates’ social media is effective in nature. “I would encourage practitioners to be cautious about this approach. I would hope for future research to provide more data regarding whether this practice is effective,” she says.

For more information please contact Dr Liwen Zhang or read What’s on job seekers’ social media sites? A content analysis and effects of structure on recruiter judgments and predictive validity.

The BusinessThink Rising Stars webinar series provides a unique opportunity for attendees to learn from the next generation of academic thought leaders, who share evidence-based analysis, insights and solutions to emerging challenges for business and the big issues for society. The next webinar in the series is When do children have a say in child labor decisions? Evidence from a refugee camp in northern Kenya.


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