Using Information from Social Networking Sites during the Hiring Process: Is More Information Always Better?

[Pictured above: Associate Professor of Information Systems Management, Dr. Jacqueline Pike]

Every organization faces the challenge of hiring new talent, whether due to expansion or turnover. Indeed, making bad hires costs money and can create negative effects throughout the firm. The financial hit is often substantial—upwards of 500% of an employee’s salary. There’s all the time, effort and money spent recruiting and training a replacement not to mention lost productivity, damaged customer relations and other disruptions. In short, the costs add up quickly.

As a result, making a smart hire is one of the most crucial decisions companies have to make. Quality decisions hinge upon hiring professionals’ ability to form impressions of candidates and determine the degree to which candidates are well-matched to the target position. While the hiring process is filled with ambiguity, obtaining useful and accurate information about candidates can make the difficult hiring task much easier.

In the face of high ambiguity, hiring professionals have developed practices, policies, and procedures to help identify and use high quality sources of information. Social networking sites, including Facebook and LinkedIn, have become vital sources of information over the last decade and arguably provide more opportunities to learn about potential hires than any prior source. Consider the numbers. Nearly 80% of Americans and over 2 billion people worldwide actively share information about themselves on social networking sites. This includes 2.32 billion monthly active users on Facebook and 260 million monthly active users on LinkedIn. In essence, social networking sites give users the ability to engage in many forms of communication by sharing and sourcing information. Social networking sites are persistent and searchable sources of information. But various audiences can access social networking sites, something that users may not fully understand.

Indeed, many academic and popular press articles have noted how frequently social networking sites are used during the hiring process as sources of information. Conventional wisdom might suggest that more information is simply better, with social networking sites yielding a treasure trove of useful revelations about potential hires. Yet recent research provides a more nuanced picture if not a cautionary tale for both job seekers and employers using social networking sites.

Specifically, Dr. Jacqueline Pike, associate professor of information systems management in the Palumbo-Donahue School of Business, is the lead author on an interesting study recently published in Information Systems Journal. Dr. Pike and her colleagues studied the impact of social networking sites on ambiguity experienced by hiring professionals when assessing job candidates. In doing so, Dr. Pike examined how specific aspects of information sourced from social networking sites impacted the level of ambiguity felt by hiring professionals during the hiring process.

In particular, Dr. Pike and her colleagues examined whether hiring professionals felt that the quality of information found on social networking sites was suitable for the task at hand (i.e., finding and evaluating job candidates). They also examined how the perception of whether multiple audience groups (e.g., friends, family, professional contacts) can access the information found on social networking sites impacted hiring professionals’ assessments. Dr. Pike’s research methodology involved an online survey-based experiment that included business students pursuing graduate degrees as participants. What Dr. Pike and her colleagues found was fascinating. Put simply, when hiring professionals felt that information on social networking sites was high quality, it tended to reduce the ambiguity they experienced about job candidates and their credentials. However, when hiring professionals felt that social networking sites offered information accessible to a range of possible audiences (e.g., Facebook), it tended to increase their level of ambiguity about job candidates compared to sites with a narrower audience base (e.g., LinkedIn).

Given their ability to both increase and decrease ambiguity, a complex relationship exists between using information sourced from social networking sites and ambiguity in regard to the hiring process. Simply put, hiring professionals must be cautious when using information from these social systems since the audience context from which the information was sourced matters. Specifically, the same information that has the potential to reduce ambiguity can increase ambiguity if obtained from a social networking site like Facebook that can be accessed by a wide variety of audiences. As a result, companies may want to consider providing additional training, suggestions and guidance for hiring professionals’ use of information from a variety of social networking sites. Doing so may help prevent bias from creeping into the hiring process when ambiguous information is found on certain social networking sites.

While not the focus of the study, the results also offer recommendations for job seekers using social networking sites. While job seekers may think that sharing information with as many social networking sites as possible may help them attract attention from hiring professionals, they need to carefully consider which sites they share their information with. Information sourced from sites that distribute information to different types of audiences (e.g., friends, family, professional contacts) can lead to increased ambiguity for hiring professionals regarding a candidate. Job seekers should think through who may access social networking sites and under what circumstances before they share any information. After all, it’s important to keep in mind that information on social networking sites is persistent, searchable and may not always create the right impression in the minds of hiring professionals. Sticking to high quality information posted on professionally-oriented sites with narrower audiences (e.g., LinkedIn) may be the best bet.