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Employer Perceptions and Use of Social Networking Tools When Hiring

This article is part of a Special Section on Web 2.0 and Social Media that ran in the Summer issue of PA TIMES. See the end of this article for links to others from the Special Section.

Brian E. Dixon

Looking for a job is challenging, especially in the current economy. Recent graduates and “downsized” public employees are among those competing for a limited number of open positions in the public and private sectors. Finding the “right” job or the “right” person for an open job remains a challenge for job candidates and human resource managers, respectively. There are a number of Web 2.0 social networking applications that may be helpful to job seekers and employers to help address this challenge. In this article, the recent findings from a survey of employers are presented for use by those in the public administration (PA) community seeking employment currently or in the near future.

In the twenty-first century, the process of finding and applying for a job–aka the “job hunt”– requires the use of Internet-based resources. Roughly half of U.S. employers are using the Internet to locate and evaluate job applicants, according to Robert Sprague in a 2007 Labor Lawyer article entitled “Googling Job Applicants: Incorporating Personal Information into Hiring Decisions.” Internet sites that facilitate connecting job applicants with employers in the PA community include: www.publicservicecareers.org, www.usajobs.gov, www.careersingovernment.com, and www.idealist.org.

Despite a growth in the use of the Internet to find applicants, many human resources (HR) professionals continue to primarily rely on personal contacts and networking to find top talent, according to a 2002 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Given this, would Web 2.0 social networking sites such as LinkedIn, sites that build and extend individuals personal contacts and professional networks, be useful when securing a job in public administration? After all, according to a 2009 study by Proofpoint, an Internet security firm, eight percent of U.S. companies have dismissed employees for their comments and behavior on Web 2.0 sites.

To examine whether LinkedIn and similar sites could be as helpful in finding new talent as they are in ousting bad apples, an online search of peer-reviewed and news sources was performed to find out the extent to which employers use social networking sites. Surprisingly very little evidence was found, even within sources such as Academic Search Premier and LexisNexis. A reference librarian at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis was consulted, and she confirmed that there just isn’t much out there on this subject. Therefore, a survey of employers was created to measure the extent of which those making hiring decisions use Web 2.0 social networking applications to find or review job candidates.

Employers were surveyed about their experiences using social networking sites to research and evaluate potential candidates. The survey link was sent out over the electronic listservs as well as specific individuals connected socially to the author whom are known to be involved in interviewing and hiring. The survey was conducted in mid-2009 over the course of a few weeks. Although the methods used did not control for variation or bias (e.g., non-random, not representative), the survey provides insight that may be of use to the PA community.

Seventy-three individuals primarily from the United States completed the survey. Respondents represented a broad range of backgrounds, including PA, information technology, medicine, and human resources. Many respondents worked in academic environments. The respondents were familiar with social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Epernicus–a site dedicated to academia. Half of the respondents (N=36) said they routinely interview job candidates, and 37 percent (N=27) of respondents reported being responsible for final hiring decisions.

Respondents’ attitudes towards the use of online profiles in the hiring process were mixed. Forty-one percent (N=30) of respondents felt that employers should look at online profiles, and 19 percent (N=14) of respondents felt that employers should request information that would help employers locate a candidate’s online profile. Slightly more than half (N=40) of respondents felt that online profiles add value beyond traditional resumes and curriculum vitas.

Respondents were also asked questions about specific social networking sites. This was done to get feedback for personal use, because the author is not interested in maintaining multiple accounts on various platforms. Again, the results were mixed. More than half (N=38) of the respondents liked the visual appearance of Epernicus. LinkedIn was the next preferred followed by Epsilen. Epernicus was also favored by the group in terms of which profile best represented the candidate’s experiences and/or qualifications. However, this preference was weaker with only 43 percent (N=29). LinkedIn was again in second place with 35 percent of respondents favoring this site. This shows some preference for Epernicus which is not surprising since many of the respondents were in academia and Epernicus was designed for academician profiles.

This survey provides a “first look” at the perceptions of employers regarding the use of social networking to locate and screen job candidates. The survey shows that about half of those who are involved in interviewing and hiring candidates believe that online profiles are useful. This is encouraging since it means that social networking sites may have utility beyond simply building a network of contacts that can help one find out about potential job opportunities.

The results of the survey are of limited use since the survey was not a validated instrument. Furthermore, the sample was likely unrepresentative of all employers since it was a convenience sample drawn largely from electronic listservs and small in size. Certainly this exploratory study can and should lead to more examination of social networking profiles, their use by employers, and their usefulness in helping a candidate secure a position.

An online, social networking profile is not a replacement for having good interviewing skills and strong experience in the field. These will remain important attributes in helping one secure a job. However, a rich social network enriched by online networking tools can be an important asset. HR professionals value and utilize social networks to find top talent. Some professionals feel that such networks can help one land not just any job but a “good” job. Even if not every employer uses them, online social networking tools should be considered for enhancing and expanding one’s network. Doing so may have dividends down the road.

ASPA member Brian E. Dixon, MPA, is a doctoral student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and a project manager at the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, IN. He currently serves as president of the Indiana Chapter of ASPA. Email: [email protected]

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