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Social Networking: Steven Rothberg

(August 30, 2006)

MySpace, Facebook and Other Social Networking Sites:
Friend or Foe to Employers?

By Steven Rothberg, CollegeRecruiter.com

Many users of the Internet believe that social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook burst onto the scene within the last two years and that they are revolutionary developments in how we communicate with each other. Revolutionary? No. Evolutionary? Yes.

First, a definition so that we're all on the same page. Social networking sites are web sites which people use to connect or work with each other and to form on-line communities. Social networking sites are far more popular with high school and college students than they are with older folk like me, but given that the visitors to CollegeRecruiter.com are searching for entry level jobs and internships [link "entry level jobs and internships to http://www.CollegeRecruiter.com ], I pay close attention to these sites.

The most popular and famous of the social networking sites is MySpace, which is the third most popular web site and has seen a 4,300 percent increase to its traffic in just two years. About 80 percent of those who use social networking sites use MySpace. Facebook is used by about eight percent of the market and is primarily targeted at college students. Facebook was created as a way for students to connect with other students on their own campus. Other popular sites include Xanga with a four percent market share and Yahoo! 360 Degrees with one percent.

In order to understand where these sites are going, it is helpful to understand where they came from. When I first started researching this issue, I was convinced that these sites were outgrowths of the reality TV phenomenon that, depending on your values, either sickens or engrosses you. What I couldn't remember, however, was when reality TV shows really started. I had heard that the first reality TV show was MTV's The Real World, which debuted in 1992. Interestingly, today's college freshmen were four years old in 1992. If The Real World was the first reality TV show, then for all practical purposes today's college students have never known a world in which reality TV was not the norm. If that's the case, then that would help to explain their penchant for exhibitionism because reality TV rewards exhibitionists.

As I dug into the history of reality TV, I came to realize that The Real World was a ground breaking show, but it was not the first reality TV show. In fact, it wasn't even close. There were many reality TV shows that pre-dated The Real World, including The Jerry Springer Show (1991 don't you just love tossing chairs at neo-Nazis?), COPS (1989 is it true that the only people who are ever arrested live in trailer parks and don't wear t-shirts?), Candid Camera (1948 who could have guessed that there was a camera behind that two way mirror?), and Candid Microphone (the 1947 radio show that, well, was on radio and not TV so technically doesn't qualify for this list but I'm writing so I get some artistic license).

Despite these earlier shows, The Real World was ground breaking because of its format. Rather than waiting for unsuspecting people to do something foolish and then exhibiting that to the entire world, the approach of The Real World was to get a group of strangers to live together for extended periods, record their every move, and add after-the-fact confessionals. In effect, The Real World waited for suspecting people to do something foolish, exhibited that to the entire world, and then compounded the situation by adding confessionals to the mix.

To-date, most of the buzz in the recruiting world about social networking sites has been about the information that is posted to these sites. Boomers and Gen X'ers are often shocked and dismayed by the photos and other information that gets posted. It is quite common to see photos that just decades ago would have been considered pornographic. While truly pornographic photos are rare and removed from most of these sites almost as quickly as they're posted, it is relatively easy to find photos which are sexual in nature or of people getting drunk, using illegal drugs, etc. Because much of this information exists and employers are increasingly interested in checking the backgrounds of their applicants, many employers have started to use these sites as part of their hiring process. But should they?

I believe that social networking sites hold much promise for corporate and third party recruiters, but also many dangers. Let's first talk about the dangers. Many and perhaps most uses of these sites by recruiters have so far been to exclude candidates from the hiring process. The recruiters are incorporating these sites into their background checking processes. Candidates who are seen drunk in photos are not likely to make the cut if being screened by a rental car company. The problem that I have with this use is that much of the information on the social networking sites is not true or posted in jest by a reality TV show generation that thinks nothing is wrong with exhibitionism and naively believes that their personal lives are completely separate from their work lives. Is that photo of your star candidate getting drunk what it appears to be or did she or a friend use Photoshop to superimpose her head on someone else's body? Does your star candidate even know that the photo, accurate or not, is posted to a social networking site? Did your star candidate naively post the photo to elicit kicks and giggles from her friends, or did an ex-boyfriend create a bogus profile and include a doctored photo in order to hurt your star candidate? At a minimum, I believe both that recruiters should forewarn candidates that these sites will be searched so that candidates will have an opportunity to put the information into context and that recruiters should afford candidates the opportunity to put the information into context after they are discovered in case the recruiters find items of which the candidate is not aware.

Another danger to employers who use sites such as MySpace and Facebook to exclude candidates from the hiring process is legal in nature. Many of the sites explicitly prohibit their use for commercial purposes. Clearly the searching of Facebook for background checking purposes is a commercial purpose. A small number of employers, including the social networking site Digg, have terminated employees because of information that they've posted. Far more employers use to the sites to as part of their background checking processes. I've spoken with recruiters who admit to using the sites this way and claim that they're not concerned because when they reject a candidate, they don't tell the candidate why they've been rejected. Yet these same recruiters also admit that they use interns to run the searches and when I question them a bit, they realize that the interns are in effect being asked to run searches on their friends and acquaintances. If you were one of these interns and ran a search that included your friend, how likely is it that you would keep that information from your friend? All that needs to happen is for one of these interns to rat out their employer to a friend and for that friend to get indignant. In the litigious society in which we live, it won't take much for that indignation to turn into a lawsuit and a whole lot of bad press. Employers which are exposed in this way will instantly be transformed from being employers of choice to employers of last resort.

So should recruiters try to forget about the wealth of information, much of which is completely accurate, at the social networking sites? Not at all. There are some excellent uses for the information. For example, the sites can be used much like employers use resume banks. If, for example, your firm is searching for an electrical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, you can run a keyword search and find those candidates. You can also run keyword searches to find nurse practitioners in Los Angeles or any other combination of keywords, categories, and locations. These candidates tend to be passive, which many recruiters claim to prefer yet in reality those recruiters often spend the vast majority of their time advertising and searching for active candidates. In short, social networking sites provide a tremendous opportunity for those recruiters who want to use them to include candidates in the hiring process.

Social networking sites are the poster children for Web 2.0, which can be defined as the movement to content which is generated by users for other users rather than content which is generated by publishers for their users. As Web 2.0 sites such as MySpace and Facebook continue to grow and add features, more employers will awaken to their existence, opportunities, and risks. Employers that pay attention to the terms of service of these sites and who use the sites primarily to include candidates in the hiring process should find great success. Employers that take short cuts by ignoring the terms of service and use the sites primarily to exclude candidates from the hiring process could find themselves in great trouble, either legally or because they will repeatedly dismiss star candidates and employees due to false or misleading information posted about those candidates on sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

-- Steven Rothberg is the President and Founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, a high traffic career site used by students and recent graduates who are searching for entry level jobs and internships.

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