A new study finds that profiles, status updates and comments on Facebook are valuable in predicting employee performance on the job, at least as they relate to personality characteristics. The potential liability that accompanies the use of social media in recruiting and hiring continues to be an issue, however.
A new study could be a game-changer in the way social media, namely Facebook, might one day be used as a viable predictor of job success.
The academic study appears to be the first-ever venture into compiling statistical data to prove that information on Facebook can yield valuable personality and job-performance information -- not just clues as to whether someone parties too hard or has alarming philosophies or alliances.
Bottom line, "there is now evidence that [social media] could be useful" as a job-performance predictor for recruiters and hiring managers, says Don Kluemper, a professor of management who specializes in human resources at Northern Illinois University's College of Business, who co-authored Social Networking Websites, Personality Ratings and the Organizational Context: More Than Meets the Eye?
"A lot of actions are taken based on Facebook profiles -- people are hired, fired, suspended -- but this is the first study to systematically examine whether using Facebook to help make such decisions has any validity," he says.
For the study, Kluemper and fellow researchers -- Peter A. Rosen, a professor at the University of Evansville's Schroeder Family School of Business Administration, and Kevin W. Mossholder, with the Department of Management at Auburn University -- asked a group of 586 undergraduate students to complete a personality questionnaire commonly used by companies to gauge what assessors call the Big Five (or key) traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, emotional stability and openness.
Of those students, 274 had Facebook profiles that were accessible to the general public and granted a team of three raters access to their profiles. Each rater perused the profiles and answered questions about the subject that were similar to those on the self-report personality questionnaire.
The researchers then calculated two personality scores per subject, one based on responses from the subject and the second based on responses from the raters. The team found that the Facebook raters had a pretty good handle on the subjects they evaluated.
"Based upon other studies, we were able to conclude that after a five-minute perusal of a Facebook page, raters were able to answer questions regarding the subject about as reliably as would be expected of a significant other or close friend," Kluemper says.
Researchers then followed a subset of students who were employed and asked their supervisors, six months later, to complete a performance evaluation. Comparing those scores to the personality scores, they found that the Facebook-derived scores provided a more accurate predictor of future job performance than the self-evaluation.
Kluemper says he wasn't expecting the results he got. He also says many more validation studies would have to be done -- and legal and privacy issues ironed out -- before the theory could be tried and tested in the business world, but the research is at least "a first step in that direction."
Just as cognitive-ability tests were first doubted, but then thoroughly tested and vetted for any adverse-impact, "so, too, would social-media profiles as job predictors need to be studied [and vetted]," he says, "and academics should be the ones studying it."
Gerry Crispin, social recruiting guru and president of CareerXroads in Kendall Park, N.J., says though he "loved the fact that someone even attempted a serious academic study [connecting Facebook with possible recruiting value] ... none of those characteristics [raters were looking for] had anything to do with the face-valid requirements of any job, i.e., lifting 50 pounds repeatedly or having an engineering degree ... ."
However, "the characteristics could be relevant as indicators of 'hard work,' 'team play,' etc., that are hypothetically predictive of performance," he says.
Kluemper says the Big Five predictors have been accepted metrics for many years and are not hypothetical, though he admits the qualities found by his raters were not job-specific.
Regardless of the study findings, Nancy Flynn, executive director of The e-Policy Institute in Columbus, Ohio, says social media remains a legal minefield for HR and hiring managers.
"From the HR and management perspective, you need to be real mindful that, while those Facebook posts may be giving you a look at the true person behind the resume ... you could be violating a discrimination clause by looking," says Flynn, author of The Social Media Handbook. "Whatever it is you saw that made you pause might be [indicative of] a protected class."
Some companies, say Flynn and Kluemper, are hiring vendors or assigning staff to screen social-media sites for background and then filter the appropriate information to HR and hiring managers.
"I say if [they] do use such resources," Flynn says, "it would be wise for HR leaders to have a discussion with the vendor just to make doubly sure that vendor understands that some of this information could be liable.
"A job candidate could say, 'Hey, you liked me when you got my resume and it wasn't until you had access to my social-media site that you were no longer interested in me. Clearly, you made that decision based on what you saw in me as a member of a protected class,' " be it ethnicity, disability, religion or anything else, she says.
Kluemper says Facebook -- and other social-networking sites -- have a place in the future of hiring, and that they may even be more valuable than personality tests because users will be less likely to get away with putting up false fronts.
"Personality-profile questionnaires," he says, "are subject to people providing what they think is the socially acceptable answer. It's harder to do that on Facebook -- your friends will call you out."
Or will Facebook become less authentic and more antiseptic as users start "gaming that system?" Kluemper wonders.
Already, he says, he's "seen some blogs that are out there giving people tips on how to make themselves more positive on their profiles ... . If people think they're being assessed by all these different parties, they might not be going there anymore."
Or they certainly won't be open about their activities or beliefs, perhaps.
Wherever all this is leading, says Crispin, the fact that it's now being studied is "pretty cool."
"I wonder how many folks actually are thinking seriously of incorporating Facebook ratings into their hiring-process map," he says. "God help us."