Pandora’s Box: Appreciating the Challenges of Social Networking

Apr 19, 2009
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Social networking is hot; at a recent event over 300 recruiters showed up to hear the experience of a company best known for making urinal cakes. It’s not easy to do — getting hires through social networking, that is (I can’t comment about the cakes).

Some of the challenges were discussed in a previous article, but in general, the reasons why people join online social networks are fundamentally at odds with the needs of employers to use those networks to find talent, and in fact an employer’s efforts to tap those networks may threaten them. Research shows that people’s motivations for using social networks are 1) to support off-line networks — people they already know well, and 2) build social capital — improve their sense of well being, self-esteem. Research also suggests that low self-esteem correlates with higher levels of online social networking.

Employees are not likely to be eager to let their employer into their networks. Think about it this way: if your boss wants to be your “friend,” then you have a problem.

Refuse and you risk insulting her. Agree, and you better watch everything you put on your Facebook or MySpace pages after that. There’s more. People’s choices of online (and offline) friends primarily reflect factors like ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc. If the values those choices imply are not the same as those of their boss or employer, then the employee may suffer.

Social networks also hold vast amounts of personal details. Todd Raphael mentioned that a lot of people are aware not to put material that can only be perceived negatively — a photo of yourself drinking beer from a funnel — but what, he asks, about milder stuff. If someone’s profile says she’s a fan of breast cancer survivors — does that turn off some employers who think she’s sick? What if you’re a fan of George Bush or Barack Obama? How does that influence employers? On Twitter, he adds, some profiles begin with “Christian.” Does that, he wonders, cause more conservative employers to think, “I like this person” and secular, liberal employers to think “too religious”?

In one case a hiring manager said he didn’t think a candidate would devote enough time to the job after reading about the candidate’s hobbies on his Facebook page.

The Minefield

We know we’re supposed to base our decisions about candidates only on job-related information, but using social media can compromise that. There’s no case law on this; yet, but it’s only a matter of time. If it turns out that an employer heavily screened out minority candidates as a result of searching through their Facebook or MySpace profiles, then a case of unlawful discrimination could be made. Employment Law expert George Lenard says that a case for discrimination could be made even if an employer searches for similar information on all applicants but discriminatory bias affects the employer’s evaluation of the information obtained.

For example, an employer may view more negatively photos of an African American male, beer in hand, hanging out at a bar than photos of a Caucasian male, also with beer in hand, hanging out at a rock ‘n roll bar. In such a situation, was it really the public evidence of drinking or intoxication that disqualified the individual? How many current employees would be disqualified from employment if never getting publicly intoxicated — or even drinking in public — was a job requirement? It’s inevitable that these questions will be raised, and the EEOC will make an example of some employer, given how trigger-happy the agency has lately become.

Even if there is no discriminatory bias, just how reliable is the information obtained? There are documented cases of people setting up fake profiles with deliberately misleading information about others. In a competitive market there’s certainly the temptation to put out unflattering information about someone that’s a potential competitor. It’s more common on MySpace and more likely to involve teens, but what’s to stop someone older from doing the same? Can you be certain that the information you have on someone is accurate, so you don’t end up including or excluding him or her for the wrong reasons?

Lenard provides an example of a company that rejected a candidate because an executive found the candidate’s web page with this description of his interests: “smokin’ blunts,” shooting people, and obsessive sex, all described in vivid slang. It was obvious that the candidate was clearly posturing, but that didn’t matter. The executive justified the decision because he questioned the candidate’s judgment. The only person’s judgment that should be questioned is that of the executive — how did he know what he read was correct or even put there by the candidate? If the candidate’s web page had claimed that his passion was volunteering at a homeless shelter and he was looking for a solution to stop global warming, then would this executive have immediately hired him?

Also, the very act of using social networking sites for finding talent can be a source of potential problems. Facebook’s terms of service agreement states that the site is intended “solely for your personal, non-commercial use.” It’s hard to make the case that recruiting is a personal, non-commercial activity. Admittedly, the possibility of Facebook proving the violation are remote, and it’s far from clear what the consequences could be, but it’s still a violation.

Navigating the Minefield

One bank decided to stop all use of social networking sites in hiring. Apparently the bank was being “proactive about anticipating any potential issues.” This is hardly a solution. Risks that exist need to be managed and mitigated against. You don’t stop driving because of the potential of accidents. If they had the same attitude when it came to making loans, they wouldn’t have a business. Then again, they had to be bailed out with over a billion in TARP funds, so knowing how to manage risks is obviously not their strong suit.

The risks with using social media for recruiting are that the information obtained on candidates is a) incomplete, b) unrelated to the job, and c) unreliable. Incompleteness of information is not much of a legal risk; recruiters almost never have complete information on candidates.

Getting access to material on candidates that is unrelated to the job is another matter — there’s real potential for problems here. But it’s important to remember that having the information is not the problem — acting on it is. To make a case for discrimination a person has to prove that a hiring decision was made based on factors that are discriminatory. That’s a tall order and the probability that some one will sue is extremely low. Properly documenting why certain candidates were excluded and others included can mitigate much of the risk.

The real danger is that someone will exclude a good candidate for no good reason. If adverse information on a candidate is uncovered as a result of social networking, then the question to ask is if it truly represents an undesirable quality about the candidate. If it does, then the next step should be to verify that through other means. Even drug tests that show evidence of use of illegal drugs are run through a more rigorous confirmatory analysis before being declared as definitely positive. If the information cannot be verified through other means, then it should be discarded.

That leaves reliability of information. In the age of Photoshop a picture of any kind is proof of absolutely nothing unless you took it yourself. With any other information — positive or negative — it’s a good idea to be skeptical. Most online sources do very little to verify the information available on them. On sites like LinkedIn one can at least see that prospective candidates are connected to similar professionals, have recommendations, etc. — all indicative that the profiles are somewhat reliable. On sites like Facebook and MySpace the same does not apply. If you find a candidate there then it’s best to assume that all you have is a lead. There’s just too much “noise” in the media for it be anything else.

It isn’t just about not making the wrong decision but about avoiding making a stupid one by acting on unreliable information. Even on LinkedIn one can have a completely fake profile. I know of one consultant who has quite a successful practice while having a full-time job elsewhere. This person has two profiles on LinkedIn, the second under a fake name, with a full set of fake credentials, recommendations, and several hundred contacts. Think about that the next time you read anything about a prospective candidate on a social networking site.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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