It’s so tempting and easy: screening job applicants on Facebook or other social media. Everyone does it, right? 

If not everyone, then certainly a growing number of hiring managers and HR professionals certainly do. CareerBuilder a couple of years ago found that 37 percent of respondents to one of its surveys reported they review applicants’ social media sites, while 29 percent indicated that they had not hired applicants due to what they learned.

But is this a valid way to vet candidates, and, more to the point, does it really work? A Florida State University study raises serious doubts on the practice.

Employers cite all sorts of reasons for using social media in this way. It allows them to gauge a candidate’s judgment, they say, and gives them insights into personality. Doing so, they say, gives them a clearer idea of whether the applicant is a good fit for their organization.

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Researchers have supported these notions, suggesting that social media could be used to assess personality, that the number of “friends” in an applicant’s social network is an indication of their agreeableness and extraversion.

The creativity with which applicants’ arrange their Facebook profile, and the types of activities and quotes they post, may reflect their openness to experience, researchers have said, while yet others have suggested that applicants who post inappropriate information online may have related problems at work, such as low conscientiousness or lack of integrity.

The bottom line is that employers have been left to feel that if they don’t check publicly available social media sites, they may be negligent in terms of failing to fully vet applicants.

The Florida State study focused on Facebook, the most visited website in the world and the most widely used social media platform. The researchers captured Facebook profiles of graduating college students who were applying for jobs. Recruiters viewed the same applicants’ profiles and made judgments concerning applicants’ suitability and their knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics. The researchers then correlated the recruiter ratings with applicants’ subsequent job performance and turnover.

Their primary conclusion?

“(The) results suggest that recruiter ratings generally are unrelated to graduates’ subsequent job performance, turnover intentions, and turnover,” the researchers’ paper said. At another point, they went so far as to say there was “zero” correlation between what hiring managers might see on a candidate’s social media sites and how well they might work out as an employee.

In their work, researchers Chad H. Van Iddekinge, Stephen E. Lanivich, Philip L. Roth and Elliott Junco also discovered something somewhat unexpected: a streak of bias, as evidenced in Facebook ratings that tended to favor female and white job applicants.

They noted that other researchers have found that females are less likely than males to post problematic content, such as substance abuse and sexual exploits, and that females tend to have higher verbal ability and writing ability than males and, finally, that female Facebook profile pictures were more likely to show them with friends or smiling and appearing happy, lending an air of agreeableness that employers typically find attractive.

The Florida State team also noted that other researchers have found that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to post quotes related to their ethnic heritage and are more likely to participate in social and political causes via social media. That generates perceptions of “dissimilarity” among recruiters, they said.

As a result, “recruiters may tend to give higher ratings to applicants they perceive to be more similar to them and lower ratings to participants who may appear less similar,” they wrote.  

Their overall recommendation?

“(These) findings cast serious doubts concerning the appropriateness of considering applicants’ SM information … during the selection process,” the researchers wrote.

“We strongly encourage organizations to refrain from using SM (e.g., Facebook) and other Internet information (e.g., Google searches) until methods for collecting and evaluating such information are shown to be reliable and valid.”

Will this lead to fewer Google searches by prospective employers? Probably not, though this study could prompt HR managers to rethink how they use social media and how much weight to give what they find on Facebook, Twitter and all of the rest.