One in two companies would be prepared to search for information about individual job applicants on personal social media websites, reveals the latest whitepaper from specialist recruiter, Robert Walters.

A further 64% of employers say they have used professional social media to inform hiring decisions, with one quarter using the information gained from these sites at the interview stage and 35% when assessing new applications.

However, the drawbacks of using social media in the recruitment process are clearly outlined. Over 60% of job seekers feel it is not appropriate for employers to check their personal social media profiles when applying for a job, arguing that it does not provide an informed picture of their professional strengths. Many agree that it does happen, however, and so 59% of job seekers say they are prepared to change their profiles to remove or alter content to appeal to a prospective employer.

Recruitment agencies remain significantly preferred over social media as a hiring channel

Additionally, despite the expanding popularity of social media, recruitment consultancies remain the preferred hiring tool among both professional job seekers and employers by a substantial margin.

The whitepaper shows that 43% of job seekers turn first to a recruitment consultancy to help them find a new role, against just 13% that prefer professional social networks. Similarly, nearly half of hiring managers feel a recruitment consultant is best placed to assist them in securing top candidates compared to posting on job boards (preferred by only 12% of employers) or advertising on professional social media (13%).

Job seeker use of professional social media

While not a popular channel for recruitment activity, social media is certainly deemed a useful employment research tool. 67% of job seekers accessing corporate professional social media profiles do so to find out more on company culture, with 80% using the same sources to research and prepare for an interview. Over two-thirds of job-seekers also recognise the value of these platforms for engaging with like-minded professionals and gaining intelligence on the market.

Chris Hickey, CEO of Robert Walters, says:

“Social media has had a profound effect on our personal relationships and how we engage with friends and family. Yet this whitepaper shows that, while there are benefits to using social media in the recruitment process, they are complimenting rather than replacing other methods used by job seekers and employers.

“Professional social networks are used by job seekers to showcase their talents and research career opportunities. However, when looking for a new role, established channels such as recruitment consultancies continue to lead thanks to their advisory skills and ability to engage with employers.”

Daniel Callaghan, founder of MBA & Company, supports recruiters in using social media:

“Social media is an important tool for recruiters, primarily as a means of attracting and engaging with candidates. It can also be used to scan profiles to check there’s nothing too extreme in a candidate’s virtual footprint that could put off employers.

“As such, anyone looking for work must be mindful of the broad reach of their online avatars. Job seekers are – or should be – increasingly aware that twitter, whilst a useful tool for interacting with friends and business contacts, is also an advert for an individual, whether they are tweeting in a professional or personal capacity.

“It doesn’t actually matter whether job seekers think checking social media profiles is inappropriate or not because, if recruiters can see your profile, so can future employers – and many now check the web as a matter of course. Security settings are easily changed, even if people only put these on temporarily while they are looking for work.”

But Tim Sutcliffe, director at Barker Ross is not sure recruiters should be trawling through every social media profile:  “One of the ways that employers can get information about candidates is via social media, but I am not surprised people want to keep their Facebook pages private.  You wouldn’t expect to give employer the keys to your house so he can look through your photo albums.

“If people can do a job and are well qualified, they shouldn’t be professionally assessed by employers looking at their holiday photos.  I think business focused social media such as LinkedIn allows people to present their business experience and qualifications and as recruiters that’s what we need to know.

“We all know that current and potential employers could use social media to find out more about us.  This is why we set privacy settings accordingly on our Facebook sites where we communicate with our close friends and are more careful about how we use more publicly accessible social media such as Twitter.”

While Gareth Jones, chief technologist of The Chemistry Group is not sure it is appropriate at all to search online profiles: “In support of the 60% of jobseekers, this recent obsession by employers is not entirely appropriate. You simply can’t help but bring your own judgements, your own unconscious bias, if you don’t understand or live in the world of the person being searched.

“This has inherent problems, not least because judgement calls are often made by people who aren’t active on social media – on people who are active.  The danger is that armchair psychologists, judges and juries are making decisions about hires.

“This can create discrimination, where a distorted view could be taken on an applicant who would otherwise be a good fit for the role. There is insufficient case law that backs up an employer who has made a call on an applicant based on their social media profile.

“However, we are entering a new world as consumers of social media. There are a small group of technology enablers who are developing tools that access social media profiles on a massive scale, assessing the type of language an individual uses.  It’s not about photos or parties someone has gone too, it’s far more subtle, and finds inferences in language used throughout a person’s social media activity.  It will draw conclusions on personality types and performance abilities so an applicant can be selected – or not selected – on fit for a role.

“There isn’t any escaping it, although it will take out a lone recruiter’s unconscious bias.”