Hiring managers misuse (and misunderstand) Facebook

July 3, 2013: 11:15 AM ET

Job applicants who over-share on Facebook, even on topics that may seem inappropriate, may be precisely the kind of candidates many companies want, according to a new study.

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FORTUNE -- Let's be clear -- no one would argue that it's a great idea for you to post that picture of yourself, dressed up like Captain Morgan, stone drunk, on Facebook.  But let's say you did, and let's say it's public -- should potential employers hold it against you? A new study suggests no, they shouldn't.

While many employers have traditionally seen references to drugs or alcohol on social media profiles as red flags, throwing out candidates who talk about questionable choices they've made could weed out employees with qualities companies actually want.

The paper, published on July 1 in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking looked at 175 students. Researchers at North Carolina State University evaluated the students for five qualities: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. They also asked the students to self-report certain behavior on Facebook (FB), including references to substance abuse and badmouthing -- badmouthing being spewing negativity about others on one's Facebook profile.

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Unsurprisingly, badmouthing correlated with a lot of unattractive traits in potential employees. But the researchers found no connection between qualities such as conscientiousness and the tendency to post about substance use. The study even found a correlation between people who have, perhaps, over-shared about partying on Facebook and a certain quality employers might actually want. "Extraverted people are more likely to post references to drug and alcohol use," says Lori Foster Thompson, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University and a co-author of the study.

The takeaway? "This study kind of says, 'Employers beware, you don't necessarily know who you're screening out when you screen out on the basis of these behaviors,'" she says.

Now, this is clearly an area where more research is needed. For one, the 175 people interviewed were students, which is a limited subset of the population, and they self-reported their behavior, which can add a bias.

But employers should think twice before using Facebook to screen candidates. Hiring managers may think they are using this great new technology to get a "natural" view of potential employees. That may be tempting, says J. William Stoughton, co-author of the NC State study. But there's a hidden variable: Facebook profiles are highly curated. People who post things employers may find inappropriate are presenting their lives to appeal to peers. That's not necessarily an accurate data stream to gauge a person's work ethic.

At the same time, many young people have adjusted their privacy settings so that it's impossible to search for their social media profiles. According to a 2010 study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "71% of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online." The kids are getting hip to employers' tricks.

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But for those who aren't, the authors of this study suggest some slack from companies. In the current talent crunch, should employers really remove people from the applicant stack if they find someone "likes" her friend's picture of a bong?  Perhaps. It depends on the values of the particular organization. But for employers looking for conscientious extraverts, they should be a little more lenient with the Facebook profiles. Or, maybe even log off and interview people the old fashioned way.

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Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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