Employers have limited information when they make their first selection of the candidates for their vacancies. A CV and short motivation letter are often not sufficient to gain insight in the personality of the candidates. At the same time, there’s a lot of information to further refine a first impression. A potential source of information is the social networking website Facebook.
Researchers from Ghent University examined whether employers actually use Facebook in a first screening. They sent fictitious letters of application in response to genuine vacancies. The names of leading fictitious candidates led, via a search engine or Facebook, to just one hit on the Internet: one of the four fictitious Facebook profiles under the control of the research team. On Facebook, only the profile picture of the candidates was publicly visible. The four photographs were diverse in terms of attractiveness and personality traits (see ‘Methodology’).
Highly educated candidates more often screened via Facebook
The scientists compared the chances of positive responses for candidates with different Facebook profiles. In their application letter there was no picture.
According to Professor Stijn Baert, “The candidate with the most favorable Facebook profile picture received approximately 21% more positive responses to his application in comparison to the candidate with the least favorable profile picture. The difference in the chance to be immediately invited to a job interview even amounted to almost 40%.”
These important differences can only be driven by the view of the Facebook profile picture, so it is clear that a significant proportion of employers screens via Facebook .
Furthermore, according to the researchers’ results highly educated people are more likely to be screened via Facebook than less educated. Contrary to expectations, employers didn’t look more often on Facebook for occupations with an intense customer contact.
Effect of Facebook profile picture comparable to photograph in CV
At the same time, an alternative experiment was conducted. The researchers added the Facebook profile pictures of the first experiment directly to the CV of the fictitious applicants. The differences in attractiveness and personality between the photos proved to have about as much impact when used as Facebook profile pictures as if they are added directly into the CV.
This finding is remarkable because not all employers use Facebook to screen candidates (while they all see a photograph which added to the CV). A possible explanation why a Facebook profile picture and a CV photo can have the same impact, is that employers see a Facebook profile picture as an honest signal (since not all candidates are aware that employers use Facebook to screen candidates).
Ethical and appropriate?
The fact that employers screen via Facebook, does not imply that this is ethically and economically justified. Regarding the ethical side, employers may not be blamed. Basically, it is the responsibility of the users of social networks to manage their privacy settings and keep track of what information they share.
On the other hand, the federal anti-discrimination law of 2007 also applies to Facebook: information gathered on ethnicity, religion or belief, sexual orientation or health status of the candidate should not lead to unequal treatment.
As for the economic side of things, screening via Facebook seems efficient.
Professor Stijn Baert said that “Via Facebook, employers can collect information about candidates in a quick and easy way. Moreover, international research suggests that the impression someone gives on Facebook reflects his real personality rather than some form of self-idealization.”
In total, 2112 applications were carried out in response to vacancies on the Flemish labor market. It concerned applications with pairs of male school leavers with either the TSO Trade diploma or diploma of Business Administration, or a degree in Applied Economic Sciences. Based on these qualifications, there was applied for a range of jobs in various sectors.
The CVs and motivation letters differed in detail and layout but were similar in productivity-influencing characteristics. What differed substantially, was the name of the candidates or picture. This feature was added to the two different applications in a haphazard way. The photos that were used in this study were selected for their different scores for attractiveness and personality (reliability in particular) in line with earlier research about the importance of these features in the labor market.
The field experiment was set up between November 2013 and May 2014 under the leadership of Professor Stijn Baert. Lynn Decuypere, Lisa Glorieux, Stefanie Notebaert, Anke Penninck and Willem Van Melkebeke collaborated on the study as part of their Master’s thesis research. The time costs for employers were kept to a minimum and full anonymity is guaranteed.
This study is the first in the world to measure the impact of Facebook profiles on job opportunities in a direct way. Previous research did that matter relying on surveys of employers about their Facebook use. The results of such research were possibly distorted because: (1) employers may give socially desirable answers, and (2) the indication that they used Facebook was still no indication of impact on final recruitment decisions.