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May 02

Facebook – Help For HR?

Lies, damn lies and statistics – or valuable research? Everyone likes to get in on advising what HR and job seekers should do, not do or pay attention to on Facebook. Hardly a day goes by without some article – and why not when millions use the system? You have to take a look, though, when a recent Toronto Star headline blandishes: Facebook predicts job success better than personality tests.The test companies must be squirming if no one else.

The published account of the research itself is typical – a little difficult to digest, though well linked to references. Their caution is worth mentioning – small sample sizes, relatively informal methods for some elements – but nevertheless, as the authors note, someone has to take a first stab at this. It isn’t an issue that’s going away nor is it one we can easily form conclusions about without controlled study – at least not conclusions beyond the now common observation that drunken party photos don’t represent good employment recommendations.

In this case somewhat experienced raters were OK’d to access the public profiles of the subject college students and were able to judge reasonably well if a given student would fit in and contribute better than others to an entry level manager job measured by bosses evaluations 6 months later. The correlations don’t approach certainty by any means, but seem better than if one looked only at the tests filled out by the students alone.

There are many, many gaps. Is it really surprising that taking a look at someone’s extended personal life record – like reading their diary or being privy to a long stream of private thoughts – might offer more insight than a 15 minute multiple choice check-off? Are we validating the use of Facebook or questioning the tests?

Suggesting an open resource any one can theoretically look at for free could replace a common hiring practice may be dangerously over-promoting its value.

In one item the researchers note that sheer number of friends influenced raters’ opinions. Fewer than half of the potential participants had a publicly-available profile, a very important statistic from the study, so we know nothing about the potentially more savvy half who either avoided Facebook (a small number) or hid the more personal stuff from view (nearly half of everyone who had a profile at all).

Ignoring privacy and subjectivity concerns and illegal human rights-related information from profiles, we have to ask on this issue, for instance, should we therefore advise job seekers to a) make sure they are on Facebook lest absence be construed as ‘unsociable,’ b) collect a large number of public ‘friends,’ and c) take care that activities on their visible pages or ‘walls’ are constructive, managed, while hiding their ‘real’ activity behind privacy controls, etc.? All these are likely good bits of advice considering what is tending to get used illegally or not, but they are also somewhat onerous requirements having nothing much to do with learning what’s needed to actually do a job.

The surprise seems to be the rarity of law suits so far. Only one thing seems certain – you can’t order people to give you their id and passwords so you can see their hidden material, a pretty basic privacy issue like asking them to hand over their personal diaries and order every friend to be completely open in commenting to prospective employers. Typically further rules are being fought out in cultures that emphasize separation of work and personal life to a greater degree. You only have to google “discriminattion facebook recruiting” to get a pretty clear idea that this issue is potentially much bigger than we see today. Who wants to risk being first on the legal firing line? We know someone will get mangled.

Of course, this study touches just one of the vast number of questions that can be researched. At what point one wonders, for instance, do we conclude a person has so many ‘friends’ they’re wasting too much time, time that would detract from what they might put in at work? Aren’t all these evaluations double-edged swords that observers might well evaluate in totally opposite ways. One evaluator might be offended by a single swear word while another might find lacking any suggests an uptight priggishness.

Given widespread belief that hiring managers and recruiters are widely using whatever Facebook items are open to them, we routinely hear recommendations that organizations avoid the possible legal fallout by employing third party companies to evaluate and provide only legally acceptable information and conclusions (a new option for those ‘discredited’ testing companies?). That not only sounds expensive, but we have even less understanding of what might influence these newly-minted experts. Who could we reasonably trust when virtually no objective research yet exists? Yes, the research has to start somewhere, but it behooves intelligent observers to refrain from drawing sweeping conclusions from such early, limited efforts.

Article originally published here:  http://www.balance-and-results.com/

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