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What can employers learn from a job candidate’s Facebook postings?

A new study suggests that employers should beware jumping to conclusions based on what they find about applicants on Facebook.

21 October 2013

By Christian Jarrett

Organisations know that job candidates are presenting an idealised version of themselves in their CV and at interview. According to reportsmany recruiters are therefore taking to social media to find an uncensored version of their applicants. Is this fair and what can they learn? A new study, led by William Stoughton and his colleagues at North Carolina State University, suggests that employers should beware jumping to conclusions based on what they find about applicants on Facebook.

Stoughton’s team invited hundreds of undergrads to apply for a real temporary research assistant position. Of those who were also on Facebook and who agreed to a follow-up survey, this left 175 undergrads, average age 19, with 63 per cent female. The survey included measures of the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, conscientiousness etc) and questions about the students’ activity on Facebook. In particular, they were asked how much they tended to engage in “bad mouthing” (e.g. how often have you criticised your employer or professors on Facebook?) and how much they posted updates about their drinking or drug use (e.g. how often during the past year have you posted photos of yourself drinking alcohol?)

Students who admitted to badmouthing on Facebook tended to score lower on agreeableness and conscientiousness. No real surprises there, although only low agreeableness retained a statistically significant association with badmouthing when the influence of all five personality traits were considered at once. More important, the amount of variance in badmouthing explained by personality traits was only 7 per cent, suggesting the associations between online behaviour and personality are modest.

Also revealing is that posting updates about drinking and drugs was only related to higher scores on extraversion but not with low scores on conscientiousness. This has potential real-life importance because employers have revealed they view online photos of applicants’ boozing and drug taking as a red flag. Presumably they think such behaviours are a sign of low conscientiousness, but this study shows this isn’t necessarily the case. Stoughton’s team speculated that conscientious people may not see their Facebook profiles as part of their professional image and that’s why they post “incriminating” photos. The lesson for recruiters is not to jump to conclusions based on candidates’ Facebook activity (see also). For job applicants – be careful about what you post online!

The study has some serious limitations that are worth bearing in mind. Not only does the student sample limit the generalisability of the results, but remember the researchers didn’t actually measure the students’ real Facebook activity. So strictly speaking the study is actually about links between students’ personality and their willingness (or desire) to admit to certain online behaviours.

Futher reading

Stoughton JW, Thompson LF, and Meade AW (2013). Big Five Personality Traits Reflected in Job Applicants’ Social Media Postings. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking PMID: 23790360