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HR Magazine, April 2005 - ‘Social Network’ Recruiting

By Jennifer C. Berkshire   4/1/2005

HR Magazine, April 2005

Vol. 50 No. 4

HR Technology Agenda

Software and online services help recruiters mine their contacts for candidates and referrals.

 For all of the technological gains of the past decade, relatively old-fashioned tools such as networking and referrals still drive the process of identifying and hiring qualified candidates.

But now some online services seek to take networking and personal connections from the HR toolbox and marry them to technology. “Social networking technology” refers to software and web-based services that enable users to leverage their personal relationships for networking, hiring, employee referrals and references.

HR professionals are trying products such as Visible Path, which measures the strength of relationships by analyzing company e-mail accounts, and LinkedIn Jobs, an online job board that allows users to visualize how many “degrees of separation” lie between them and potential job candidates.

But social networking technology has attracted a few critics. Privacy advocates are alarmed by the prospect of software that churns through employees’ e-mail. And skeptics remind HR professionals who have caught the social networking technology bug that while these services may make generating names of potential hires a snap, transforming those names into candidates remains the real challenge.

Making Contact

The Internet has opened up a whole new way of networking for job candidates. Online sites have sprung up to help connect people and jobs—putting technology behind the old concept of “it’s not what you know but who you know.”

LinkedIn.com is one of the more popular professional online networking sites currently in use. (For a list of other sites, see “Getting Connected”.) New users register on the site and supply their name and location, then identify the kind of work they do and disclose whether they’re a full-time employee or a consultant. There is no cost to join, and LinkedIn offers privacy protection, including a pledge never to sell your information to a third party and never to share your contact information with another user, unless both of you choose to contact one another.

By joining the LinkedIn community, you’ve essentially added your name to an enormous electronic Rolodex. And once you’re in, you can search the extended network of contacts to find out who your contacts know. LinkedIn allows users to search for contacts by ZIP code, job, even the company for which they work. LinkedIn also gives you the option of uploading your Microsoft Outlook contacts onto the network. A quick search will reveal which of your contacts already belongs to LinkedIn.

Remember the old canard about how there are no more than six degrees of separation between any two people? The idea is that any person can be linked to any other person through no more than six other people. LinkedIn relies on that principle. Search for contacts, and you will get an indicator of the strength of your connection to those candidates. A direct knowledge of the contact would be defined as one degree of separation; someone who is known by a colleague’s contact would merit a third degree of separation, and so on.

It may sound complicated, but the premise is actually simple, says co-founder Konstantin Guericke. “When we say that the connection strength is based on degrees of separation, it’s not a technology ‘gee whiz’ thing.”

Linking to Jobs, Candidates

Based on the popularity of its online network (LinkedIn currently boasts more than 1.8 million users in 120 industries), the company recently branched out into the job search business. In January, LinkedIn unveiled a new service designed specifically to allow HR professionals, managers and recruiters to post job listings within the LinkedIn network.

Users post a job description (LinkedIn charges $75 to post a position; there’s no charge for searching for candidates) just like they would on a traditional job board. But instead of getting applications from anyone who has stumbled across your job description, you receive resumes and applications via your LinkedIn contacts. Each time you receive an application, for example, you can immediately see which of your contacts knows people who have worked with the candidate. And in addition to seeing resumes, users can also view public endorsements provided by former co-workers, managers and business partners that are included on the candidate’s profile page.

That approach, says Guericke, allows HR professionals to tap into a huge pool of passive candidates they might not otherwise have access to. But users get something else as well: the power of referrals to generate qualified candidates. Explains Guericke: “If you are connected to someone who has posted a job, the candidate has to go through you to make contact with the poster.” Resume inflation, the bane of many HR professionals, is also harder to pull off here than on most job boards. For one thing, users post only one profile—and everyone can see it. “When you post your profile, all your colleagues and former bosses are looking at it, too. It’s harder to lie,” Guericke explains. “We tend to get more accurate resumes as a result.”

Timothy Farrelly, president of Coit Staffing Inc. in San Francisco, was among the first to use LinkedIn Jobs when it went live in January. He says he had his job postings up in minutes, and within days he began hearing from qualified candidates, at least some of whom were referred by members of LinkedIn to whom Farrelly was directly connected. “I was really impressed,” says Farrelly. “Posting a job was simple, and I ended up getting a better quality of candidate than I usually get through job boards. The difference is that your colleagues are the ones doing the referring.”

Calculating E-Mail’s Influence

HR professionals have long tried to generate good candidate leads by tapping their own employees as referral sources. But the programs typically wane due to lack of employee participation, no matter how much bonus money is offered if those leads turn into new hires. Companies like New York-based Visible Path Inc. have found a way to usurp the employee and go directly to the source—its technology analyzes the strength of relationships by searching company e-mail systems.

Visible Path works by searching employee e-mail in-boxes and calculating the number of e-mails that are sent and received between parties. E-mails that generate a response are given added weight, while names that appear in the blind carbon copy, or BCC, line of an e-mail are given even more weight (the fact that a recipient is being given “secret” access to a conversation is viewed as an indicator of trust). The software lets HR professionals and other company leaders visualize the relationships their employees have outside the company with potential clients and even with competitors.

Visible Path, along with a growing number of companies that offer social networking solutions, relies on today’s equivalent of the little black book: each employee’s list of Microsoft Outlook contacts. Visible Path customizes its software for installation on company computers, then each employee is given the choice of what contacts to include in the network (personal files can be exempted, for example).

When it’s time to look for new employees—or even to check the references of a potential hire—the HR professional need simply click a button. “What the technology does in a fundamental way is to map the social networks and referral networks of everyone and to help the company use that map to hire, recruit and reference more effectively,” says CEO and company co-founder Antony Bryden. “The current method of getting referrals is very ad hoc, almost serendipitous. ‘Does anybody know somebody?’ We’re trying to take the serendipity out of the process.”

John Girard, CEO of Clickability, a San Francisco-based web publishing company that provides web publishing services to CNN, Time, the Wall Street Journal and Popular Mechanics, recently used Visible Path to check the references of candidates being considered for several marketing and sales positions. Once his team had identified its top choices, it activated Visible Path, searching the top candidates’ work histories by company and title.

“We were looking for connections between potential hires and our existing employees and our extended network,” explains Girard. “Asking, ‘Does anyone know someone?’ isn’t so easy to do once you get beyond your immediate network. Using Visible Path allowed us to find people in the candidates’ previous employment positions that we had some connection to.” Once the connections were identified, someone from Clickability then contacted those connected individuals about the candidate. “Everyone was happy to participate. This was a brokered introduction.”

As for cost, Girard estimates that his company’s deal with Visible Path costs approximately $100 per employee for its 24 employees, an investment that he believes will pay off with a single good hire.

Protecting Privacy

Use of these networking programs raises some privacy concerns. Even the most conscientious employee, for example, may feel reluctant to have his e-mail examined, even by a software program.

To encourage employees to participate in social networking searches, most platforms allow employees to exempt certain e-mail folders—say, those used for personal business—from the search. And Visible Path, for example, only looks at who is sending and receiving the e-mail; it pays no heed to the messages’ content.

Online networking sites like LinkedIn have answered privacy concerns by making the network a fully “opt-in” system. “What’s important is that each relationship is confirmed by each person,” says Guericke, noting that while 65 million contacts have been uploaded into the LinkedIn universe, none can be exposed in a search until consent has been given.

David Carpe, a consultant and research expert in Lexington, Mass., says he’s a big fan of LinkedIn, but acknowledges that HR professionals might get heartburn if they use the site to spy.

“HR people who are new to the site immediately think that it’s great. Then they start looking for their own employees,” says Carpe. “But just because your employees have profiles on LinkedIn doesn’t mean that they’re planning to leave. It’s a great networking tool, but it has the potential to make a lot of HR professionals very paranoid.”

Proceed With Caution

Lou Adler, president of the Adler Group, an Irvine, Calif.-based training and consulting firm that helps companies design recruiting technology, says he’s tried all the new social networking technology and the verdict is still out on its usefulness. “Generating a name is a piece of cake,” he explains. “But the real question is, how do you convert that name into a candidate?”

While Adler sees real potential in the new technology for good recruiters, and routinely uses it in his own recruiting efforts, he cautions HR professionals against thinking that virtual networking is a surefire way to access a deep pool of formerly unreachable passive candidates. The technology needs to be supported by highly trained recruiters. “If you don’t organize your team properly, recruiting passive candidates will never happen.”

While Adler doesn’t think HR professionals should avoid virtual networking -- he’s a fan of networking sites—he recommends that companies think hard about where their technology dollars and energy are going. “Spend your technology dollars on making recruiters more productive and making it easier for your candidates to contact you and submit resumes,” he says. Look to social networking technology as a way to support and enhance -- not replace -- traditional recruiting methods.

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a Boston-based freelance journalist, specializing in business and labor issues, and an adjunct professor of labor and the media at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
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