Can Facebook Really Replace Employment Firms?

A Kick In the Career: What happened to face-to-face networking? In this week's column, humorist and career expert Tom Stern wonders whether social networking is really conducive to launching one's career.

Remember when the only thing chaining you to your computer was e-mail? Oh, how I long for those days, the way a caveman must have gazed wistfully at the new invention called the wheel while grunting unintelligibly about how much simpler things were when his only concern was clubbing things to death within a quarter-mile radius of his yurt. Ever since DSL, it's been possible to quickly access such pertinent information as a fictional schematic for the architectural layout of Hogwarts or a YouTube clip of Merv Griffin singing "Dancing Queen." Indeed, we have had fewer and fewer reasons to venture beyond the computer desk we ordered online from Ikea, you know the one that we are expected to assemble ourselves with nothing but the God-forsaken Allen wrench that came in the box.

All by way of saying the old paradigms are dying out and the Internet is now the place to be for just about everything. Record stores are now gone because we download music. Professional movie critics have been replaced by pre-pubescent bloggers whose idea of a classic remake is Will Ferrell starring in "Gone With My Wind." Personally I don't want to see a three-hour film about a southern gentleman who's inured to his own flatulence, although it would certainly give "frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn" a whole new meaning and might finally explain how Atlanta caught fire. And potential employers are, so they tell us, everywhere in cyberspace, looking to connect with you and your dynamic skills by checking out your profile on LinkedIn, Twitter, Friendster, Facebook, LinkFace, MyFace, YourFace, InYourFace or whatever the latest "make all your personal information available to a phalanx of potential serial mutilators" site is going by these days. The pressure is on for us all to have visibility in the social networking community. I don't know about you, but the idea that there is someone out there waiting to find me sounds a lot more like something out of "Seven" than a way to enhance my job search. Coming home to find the equivalent of, say, Gwyneth Paltrow's head bubble wrapped in a FedEx box would really make me question the recruiting practices of my potential employer.

What ever happened to human contact and the kind of gut instinct first impressions that only come from true face time? Sure, there are upsides to cyber-connections. You save postage by not having to mail out hundreds of résumés. You save on gas by not having to drive to dozens of interviews, but the downside is you could spend three weeks on LinkedIn networking with the CEO of a startup, only to find out that his headquarters is a cardboard box and he just changed the name of his company to "Homeless Depot." (Plus the stock-option, base salary, sign-on bonus package he offered you was actually a scratch-and-sniff tear-out from Mademoiselle that he triumphantly excavated from a recent dumpster dive.)

In a world of regression analysis and market segmentation aren't the number of these sites only a reflection of the growing need in our culture to find an idiosyncratic group to which each of us can belong? It seems that to remain competitive, we feel we must scour through every possible niche group, not sure where our big break will come from. You never know whom you'll meet at that Web page where they are constantly updating a database of out of work machinists who also have degrees in animal husbandry. I found one that had a surprising critical mass, especially given its stringent requirements. It's for people with degrees in business administration, who have a profound fear of banjos and are racially open-minded yet lactose-intolerant. A friend of mine has even started up a 12-step program online for compulsive typists. Unfortunately, reading some of their Instant Messages can take up to three days.

What's really at the bottom of this need we have to get on every social networking site there is? The fact is the job market has changed from a place where people stayed at the same company for thirty years and worked within a system to interact with all kinds of different people, to a market where most of us don't hold a job longer than Eddie Murphy's most recent marriage. (I believe they filed for legal separation before they'd even completed their vows.) As a recruiter, I know that most people don't change jobs just to make more money, but also in the quick-fix hope that their next work environment will contain fewer challenging interpersonal dynamics. So, which came first, the Internet chicken or the shirking-human-contact egg? It's true that the volume of our communication has quadrupled at least, but what does that really mean if we rarely have to look people in the eye? Perhaps we've ceased to develop conflict resolution skills at all. Now if we have an unresolved professional relationship, we can just cover our hostility by adding a smiley-face icon to any statement we make online. This makes it easier to cover the fact that we've had a bloodied voodoo doll of our co-worker in a desk drawer since Y2K.

Oh, well, it's easy to be hard on ourselves for thinking that the magical Internet is going to take care of everything for us, but all we're really doing is using a modern tool to do what we've always done: try to get to the next level. And there's nothing wrong with that. What I'm worried about, though, is that this compulsion to use the Internet to constantly seek something better will spill over into our personal lives. If that happens, what is to prevent our loved ones from trying to alter the chain of command every few years with a little familial outsourcing? Then again, maybe I'm just being paranoid. Although last week I definitely lost points when during my daughter's violin recital I screamed out, "Not again!" and smashed my faulty Bluetooth on the floor, disrupting her solo and embarrassing my wife to no end. My confidence that my apology had smoothed things over dissipated when later at home I walked in on my entire family hunched over the computer Googling "new dad." And my wife mumbling something about needing to reach a customer service consultant in Bangalore.

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7 Comments

  • K Wozkak

    I agree that the landscape is changing, but as Gregg points out above, the (ir)relevancy of the internet to specific industries is not going to change anytime soon. I think that really all social networks are doing hiring-wise is encouraging nepotism in larger companies and helping like-minded individuals find each other and create start-ups. That's it. If I need an IT consultant or a new project manager, I'm not gonna ping people on Linked In, I'm gonna call Dayak, have them post to job to the recruiting boards for me, and let the CVs and resumes come in, high tide or low. The claims that you can save money by finding folks through Facebook, while true in theory, don't take into account that it can be darn near impossible to find what you NEED in Facebook.

    The internet has done wonders for the recruiting industry, yes, what with more sites following the ebay/priceline model: but has networking ever replaced typical recruiting or hiring SOPs? This article really only applies to a small sub-category of GenY startups.

  • Greg Tingle

    If your in the news media business, or want to get in the news, it sure helps with networking and keeping your finger on the pulse of what's going on out there, especially considering things move at the speed of news these days. Even Rupert Murdoch said 'The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow'.

  • Brent Nau

    You need to find your next recruit where they spend their time at the most, on the Internet. If you not in these social networks, your competitors are.

  • Darin Phillips

    Tom, I read the article because of the title, but the two are not even remotely related. You do seem to claim, albeit in a very round-about way, that online social networking is replacing face-to-face networking or job interviews. However, you provide no evidence to support this claim. I suppose this article was written so that you could finally publish a few pithy comments that have been bottled up inside... Yes, it has some redeeming value as a humorous article.

    I spend a great deal of time helping or partnering with people who are both internal and external recruiters. Many of them are leveraging the social networks that are on the Internet, but not for the purposes you suggest.

    First, some enterprising recruiters use sophisticated search (including Boolean logic queries) to source potential candidates for open positions. They are looking for completely passive candidates, not those that are posting several different profiles on Monster.com. Even if the passive candidate is not interested in learning more about the position, they will often refer my colleagues to someone who may be interested. Never before has this type of data been so readily available and so easy to use, so you should only expect more and more recruiters to use these sites for this purpose.

    Second, every recruiter that is even half-decent will Google the top candidates as an initial screen. This is not to find candidates, but to exclude them. If a job is posted online, literally hundreds of responses are received. (This is getting to be even more true in these challenging times.) A quick Google search will turn up pages of data on most candidates, allowing the recruiter to see how consistent, positive, and relevant the candidate's online reputation is with what they have attached to the job application. Most candidates kill their chances with a MySpace page that highlights things that we don't even want our parents to know, much less our boss. Candidates may also have blogs or have made comments trashing former employers. (Just in case you were wondering, that is bad form.) Still others, have submitted a resume that is very interesting, but not even remotely related to the career that they have shared on LinkedIn or FaceBook.

    At the end of the day, these are all just quick screens and best guesses. A candidate can create multiple profiles that are all just as impressive as the resume (and equally as creative in interpreting the candidate's career). The candidate may also use language that means one thing in their industry and something else in another industry. (I specialize in leading teams that practice competency-based human capital management support to the business but a few folks have called me about jobs finding models on South Beach because the short phrase for my work is "talent management".)

    Once an attempt has been made to make a potential candidate aware of a position or the applicant has been Googled, I don't know any company that makes a hiring decision (as you seem to imply). Instead, they follow some level of screening that involves face-to-face contact. At the very least, they conduct some sort of interview, usually with the hiring manager. At the most, they have a phone screening with the recruiter, written assessment, job simulation, behavioral interview, team interview, and final conversation with the hiring boss and/or recruiter.

    Hiring someone without ever having any face-to-face contact is recruiting malpractice. If it is happening you should dig up those companies and write another humorous article. In line with this one, you might title it "Can HR really go Green?"

    I could not resist that last comment...

  • Marianne Bellotti

    In fact I think social networking and the internet in general, for all its other benefits, is actually regressing our business culture not advancing as many suggest. Talk to any young job seeker, if social networking has become more of a force in the job market it's because internet job sites have increased competition in such a way that qualifications are even less important than they once were and 'who-you-know' even more important. One monster.com posting might lead to hundreds of resumes for a single position. No HR person on Earth can fairly cull a handful of candidates from a pile of 200 resumes.

    Last year a study came out that reported that companies hire on average 25% from referrals and 35% from internal promotions ... so even with the best qualifications in the world you only have about a 40% chance of being hired unless you're in your employer's network somehow. And that's if we don't account for the hiring shift toward contract/freelance employment!

  • Gregg Lebovitz

    The title of your article really detracts from the content of your article and makes me feel that Fast Company is as relevant as my old dusty and unused rolodex.

    Facebook has absolutely no relevance to my workplace, whereas Linked in is slowly replacing my contact manager for non email contacts. I don't feel that Linked-in replaces face to face contact, but it sure makes it easy to connect with past colleagues and associates who have slipped out of my life.