Report: Social Networks Catching On as HR Tool

By Steve Bates Nov 3, 2008
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HR professionals are slowly increasing their use of social networking web sites to find, contact and screen job candidates, but more than half of them have yet to use such sites, according to new research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

A SHRM research report, Online Technologies and Their Impact on Recruitment Strategies: Using Social Networking Websites To Attract Talent, finds that searching for passive job applicants is becoming a popular use of some of these sites, which have names such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. The sites can contain substantial personal information—some good, some bad—that can be used by HR professionals to gain information about potential hires.

These types of sites are used primarily to recruit exempt non-management and middle management professionals, the SHRM report finds. However, many HR professionals have reservations about using the sites, particularly when it comes to screening potential hires.

Two-thirds of survey respondents say they don’t use social networking sites for screening applicants and don’t plan to do so. Thirteen percent use the sites to screen potential hires, 18 percent plan to do so, and 2 percent have done so in the past but don’t plan to do so again. Fifty-four percent of organizations that do not use social networking websites for screening cited “questions about the legality of the process” as their reason.

Recruiting and contacting potential job applicants through social networking sites is a little more popular, however. Thirty-four percent of those polled recruit or contact potential applicants through social networking sites, and 19 percent plan to do so in the future. Three percent have used the sites for recruiting in the past but don’t plan to do so again, and 45 percent of respondents say they don’t use the sites to recruit and don’t plan to do so.

“The legal and ethical implications from purposefully collecting information about potential job candidates impact the lengths that HR professionals are willing to go to gain insight into potential candidates—not very far,” said Evren Esen, manager, Survey Program, for SHRM and the author of the survey report. “The reality is that social networking websites are a less reliable source for screening candidates than actually meeting with candidates face to face in the traditional format of an interview,” she said. “Recruiting candidates through social networking sites is another matter completely because via this venue HR professionals are able to market their companies and target potential candidates with very specific skill sets.”

Technology Impacts Strategies

The report notes that “building relationships and networking has always been one of the best ways for staffing professionals to source job candidates and for job seekers to find jobs. The technological frenzy of the 21st century is having a profound impact on recruiting strategies, whilst still allowing the human element of relationships to remain at the core. … Social networking sites provide a unique method of allowing staffing professionals to source, contact and screen both active and passive job candidates.”

The SHRM survey, fielded in May 2008, asked 3,000 HR professionals with recruiting or staffing duties how they are using online technologies, and social networking sites in particular. More than 570 people responded.

The survey found that whereas in 2006 only 2 percent of respondents used social networking sites frequently and 7 percent used them occasionally, in 2008 4 percent of respondents said they always use the sites, 9 percent go to them frequently and 13 percent use the sites occasionally. Eighteen percent of HR professionals say they seldom use the sites today, and 56 percent say they never use them. Two years earlier, 79 percent of HR professionals had never used social networking sites.

By contrast, half of survey respondents always or frequently use online search engines such as Google as an HR tool, 34 percent use search engines occasionally or seldom, and 16 percent never go to search engines to gain intelligence about applicants.

The leading reason cited by HR professionals for using social networking sites to recruit or contact applicants is that the sites reach passive applicants that organizations might not otherwise reach; this rationale was cited by 69 percent of respondents. Forty percent cited the ability to target a specific job level, 38 percent cited the ability to target applicants with a specific set of skills, and 35 percent cited the ability to increase employer brand and recognition.

“Even during turbulent economic times, there is competition for talent, particularly for candidates that have specific niche types of skills that an organization may be in need of,” noted Esen. “This necessitates that HR professionals position themselves to continually adapt to changing market conditions. More and more Generation Y employees spend their time on social networking sites, and to reach them so must HR professionals.”

The most common reason why HR professionals do not use the web sites to recruit or contact applicants is that they don’t have enough HR staff to use this method in addition to other methods, cited by 49 percent of respondents. Questions about the veracity of the information contained on the web pages was cited by 42 percent.

In addition to questions about the legality of using social networking sites for screening applicants, SHRM survey respondents are concerned about the ability to verify information from an applicant’s web site profile (43 percent of respondents), about respecting the privacy of applicants (40 percent) and the fact that information from the sites might not be not relevant to work-related potential or performance (36 percent).

About half of those surveyed said they spend no more than two hours a week recruiting or screening applicants on social networking sites. About one-fourth spend three to five hours a week, and 3 percent indicated that they use such sites almost full time for screening applicants.

Little Effort, Big Payoff

The top advantages to using the sites for screening, cited by about half of respondents, are that the tools require little time and effort in relation to information gained and that the sites provide more information about applicants than can be found on resumes and cover letters.

While 53 percent of HR professionals use social networking sites to search for passive recruits or applicants using the sites’ search feature, 24 percent create a group or page on the sites with information about their organization and search for applicants on the sites.

HR professionals feel that they have alternatives to social networking sites. Nearly half say they use national online job boards to recruit, 43 percent take advantage of employee referrals, 35 percent go to the career sections of organizations’ web sites, and 13 percent use industry-specific or niche online job boards. Lesser numbers take advantage of print advertising, job fairs, on-campus college recruiting and other methods.

More than 60 percent of participants in the SHRM survey said that learning about an applicant’s involvement in volunteer or civic groups from a social networking site would make them more likely to hire the person. A similar proportion of staffing professionals would be swayed positively by finding that the applicant is involved in professional societies or organizations.

About half of respondents said that their decision to hire would be impacted by information or pictures on social networking sites relating to applicants’ romantic exploits. Ninety-three percent said information on an applicant’s online profile that contradicts information provided directly to the potential employer would make them less likely to hire the individual.

Possibly because social networking sites are a relatively new tool for HR professionals, 72 percent of those surveyed say they have no formal or informal policy about use of such sites. Thirteen percent said they have an informal policy against use of the sites, while 10 percent said they have an informal policy allowing use of them.

“As more recruiters use social networking sites, there will be an increase in policies,” observed Esen. “Using such sites leads to countless dilemmas that will require that companies take a mindful approach when using social networking sites.

“For example,” she continued, “if a potential job candidate learned that she was not hired because a recruiter viewed her site and uncovered information that might have led to discriminatory behavior on the part of the recruiter, how would an organization defend itself? Unfortunately, the company could be held liable.”

Steve Bates is manager of online editorial content for SHRM.

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