What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? Facebook Knows

Apr 4, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

What Facebook Reveals About Candidates

In recent weeks there have been a lot of stories about employers asking candidates for their Facebook passwords or accepting a hiring manager as a friend, apparently sanctioned by HR. This is the kind of behavior that so endears HR to others in the organziation, and why it’s true that no child grows up wanting to work in HR. I suspect this has more to do with some people trying to justify their existence and demonstrate that they belong in the 21st century than with accomplishing anything useful. The problem may solve itself since such acts are a violation of FB’s privacy policy — but never underestimate the tenacity of an HR professional determined to prove their usefulness.

But the more relevant question here is: what do they expect to find?

Pictures of drunken behavior? How does one define that for a still picture? And, if there is such a picture, does that mean this is the candidate’s normal behavior? A company that claims to screen candidates based on their Facebook profiles showed me a picture of a person standing in front what they claimed was a marijuana plant. There are at least seven varieties of plants that can be mistaken for marijuana. Even if it was marijuana, then what does it prove?

Someone I know who was advocating for this same company said it was worth a few bucks to know if a candidate had been making racist statements. This is a perfect illustration of the problem. The first question I would ask is: “If it’s only a few bucks, then just how likely is it the information is any good?” There’s a high risk of false positives. The use of certain words may make it clear that a person is racist, but it’s rarely that obvious. Given the maniacal devotion to political correctness in some quarters, anything can be deemed offensive. For example, some people think that any criticism of the President is a racist statement. So it’s largely a matter of opinion.

It’s All About Me

It doesn’t have to be a subjective process. There is some useful data that can be mined from Facebook. Recent research shows a link between the number of friends a person has on Facebook and the degree to which s/he is a “socially disruptive” narcissist. People who have lots of  friends, tag themselves more often, change their profile pictures a lot, and update their newsfeeds more regularly tend to be very narcissistic — suggesting a toxic personality. Such individuals can be very self-absorbed, vain, and with exhibitionistic tendencies. They need to be constantly at the centre of attention. They cannot stand to be ignored or waste a chance of self-promotion, so they often say shocking things or inappropriately self-disclose. They have a sense of deserving.

A person displaying these traits in the workplace can be a very disruptive influence. But then, that may be the new normal. Other research suggests that we’re seeing an epidemic of narcissism, especially in the generation entering the workforce now, which has a highly inflated sense of self-worth. Of course, continued high unemployment may solve that problem (there’s always a silver lining).

These are broad conclusions and the research needs to be developed further, but it is revealing and indicative of certain traits that should be better investigated when hiring. But this isn’t the first study of its kind. Other research has suggested that social networks in general tend to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support. Facebook just makes it easier (I doubt that anyone would do this on LinkedIn).

What it Means for Recruiters

It’s still early days in the social media world, especially for recruiters, so tread carefully. To reach any conclusions about a candidate would require a careful analysis of their profile, and even then it’s hardly definitive. Charles Handler of Rocket-Hire, who is an expert and does a lot of work in assessments, mentioned that for Facebook to be truly useful in evaluating candidates it would require attaching assessment information to a profile. The profile should be set up so that it collects information related to jobs. This information could then be overlaid onto a breakdown of the job along the same dimensions covered in the assessment. We’re a long ways from that.

Facebook can add some value to a selection process, but not a lot at this point. So much of it is subjective or incomplete. There’s also potential for trouble because using any information gleaned from Facebook can be a violation of privacy. This is the position of the ACLU, which is aggressively supporting legislation to stop the practice. Laws are already being proposed in several states and at the federal level, which would effectively block employers from using any information on social networks as a source of information for screening applicants. That may be overkill, and are a potential goldmine for lawyers, but no one should be surprised. Given how popular such legislation will be, it is virtually guaranteed to pass.

photo from IMDB

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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