NCSU researchers urge caution in using social media to scout job applicants

dblustein@newsobserver.comJuly 14, 2013 

Lori Foster Thompson


— Before making job offers, some employers scour social media sites such as Facebook to try to glean unfiltered information about prospective employees.

But this approach to screening applicants may actually eliminate good candidates, according to researchers at N.C. State University.

“Employers beware,” said Will Stoughton, 29, a graduate student in the psychology department and an author on a study published this month.

According to the study, those pictures of alcohol and drugs that everyone warns against putting on Facebook don’t necessarily reflect the poster’s conscientiousness as a worker. Rather, the photos may indicate that the photo poster was more of an extrovert, an attribute that may be desirable to an employer.

“We looked at what does the Facebook behavior reflect as far as personality,” Stoughton said.

Lori Foster Thompson, 41, professor of psychology at NCSU, says a lot of attention is focused on what job applicants are doing on Facebook, but there isn’t much known about how employers are using that information.

One Facebook activity that could raise a red flag for employers is badmouthing. People who criticized superiors and peers on Facebook were low in agreeableness and conscientiousness, Stoughton said.

So Facebook profiles aren’t useless, Thompson said: “We just don’t know enough yet to use them in a valid way.”

Local employers declined requests to speak about hiring practices, but a survey from 2012 found that 37 percent of employers nationwide reported using social networking sites to research job candidates. Drinking or drug content and badmouthing observed on social media sites were among the leading examples cited for causing an employer not to hire someone.

In their study, the NCSU researchers first assessed the personality traits of college students applying for a temporary, paid position through an online application. A follow-up survey two weeks later was administered to collect data about the applicants’ Facebook behavior. The researchers analyzed the data to find out which personality characteristics were related to specific social media activities.

More work remains

Both Stoughton and Thompson call themselves scientist-practitioners. They conduct research in the lab and apply their findings to real-world situations. Stoughton has been working with the Marines and the Army to help assess the skills of Special Forces’ operators.

The research team hopes to use data to develop an effective approach for using social media in employee assessments.

But more work must be done.

The lab is busy looking at how applicants react to an employer looking them up on Facebook, something that can create a culture of mistrust between employer and applicant, Thompson said.

And Stoughton described another potential problem with Facebook use: guilt by association. Even the most careful Facebook user can be at risk of judgment when a friend posts a compromising photo.

However, these NCSU researchers have found a way to avoid these Facebook issues in their own lives. With his graduate school and military work, and his love of spending time outdoors, Stoughton says he is too busy to have his own Facebook account.

And Thompson is Facebook-free, too.

Blustein: 919-829-4627

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