Treat social media as a shop window for employers, but be careful

Human head with interface icons

Hiring practices within many modern organisations today are placing greater emphasis on the social networking presence of candidates.

This tactic may be used to uncover potential indiscretions, or an attempt to assess the true 'value' of the candidate.

This very public shop window for candidates is a relatively new concept and extends the initial definition of the term "Social Network" that was originally presented in a 1954 research paper, Class and Committees in a Norwegian Parish.

The paper draws a map of the relationships between individuals, indicating the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds.

The social network, as we know it today, is mapped through technology and the advent of social media websites, affording us the luxury to maintain our social ties that go beyond our ability to simply remember our personal links.

Subsequently, the theory known as "six degrees of separation" that was a popular term to describe the work of Stanley Milgram, examining the average path length for social networks, needs to be dramatically reduced to account for the advances in technology.

However, the fundamental differences in our social ties today, as opposed to just over a decade ago, are the very nature of these links themselves.

A good friend of mine once said to me, that you attract those people with whom you have common interests, otherwise known as interpersonal attraction.

Previously, communities and relationships were largely based on the fact that you lived close to someone, effectively in physical proximity.

Technology now allows us to build interpersonal relationships with people around the world, beyond our immediate physical proximity, thus naturally attracting those with similar interests.

Subsequently, our own social networks are now closer to us in terms of age, interests, and background, than they are likely to be in terms of physical proximity. Obviously exceptions will exist, but consider how many of us have built close relationships with people we have physically never met?

Although we may know our immediate next-door neighbour, how well we know them? And do we know the person that lives three or even two doors from us? It's unlikely.

Undoubtedly, this point can be debated - but the area that has fundamentally changed is this concept of reputation, whether that is personal or corporate.

Returning the favour

In today's modern social network, the concept of reputation does provide a degree of quantification, for example Twitter followers, Facebook "likes", LinkedIn endorsements, and so on.

However, such reputational "indices" are merely reflective of a combination of point-in-time endorsements. Very rarely do we see individuals revoke a recommendation of a former colleague - and indeed, even the motivation for endorsements or Twitter following does vary.

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr Robert Caildini identifies reciprocity as a key influencing technique, and this desire to return the favour has found its way onto social networks. For example, the implicit expectation to return a LinkedIn recommendation and even in some cases to follow people back on Twitter.

Raj Samani
Social media reputation can be manipulated, says Raj Samani

With greater emphasis during job applications to review social media profiles, and peoples' online personas, one has to ask the question whether this merely provides a false sense of the true value an individual can provide to a prospective employer.

Especially considering that any such shop window offered by prospective employees may well have been manipulated using known psychological influencing techniques to garner the exact response they are seeking.

Undoubtedly, this approach to building a digital representation of our social ties does represent significant value.

However, each of us should place a degree of caution in simply making assumptions based on the numbers represented.

Does someone with more Twitter followers, or LinkedIn recommendations represent a better hire or more knowledgeable in their field than someone that does not use these tools, or worse still has a smaller following/number of endorsements?

Of course not, but unfortunately with a greater emphasis placed on automated screening of prospective employees, it does appear to be a growing trend.

This, of course, does not mean that such indicators do not have any merit; indeed as an indicator they are remarkable tools.

But, as with most third-hand information, an integrity check should always be undertaken.

Raj Samani is chief technical officer - for Europe, Middle East and Africa - at IT security specialists McAfee. He previously worked in security for a large public sector organisation in the UK. He is on the advisory council for Infosecurity Europe.