Facebook and Signalling: Are There Negative Consequences to not Being on Facebook?

From a letter to the editor published in last Saturday’s New York Times:

[O]ne big concern I have not seen discussed is whether not having a Facebook page is a liability.

An acquaintance recently told me that his church had hired a new minister. The final decision on which of two excellent candidates to hire came down to their Facebook pages. Presumably, candidates without Facebook pages didn’t get a second look.

Are we at the point where low Internet presence equals low job prospects?

We’ve all heard theories according to which Facebook is an enabler of narcissism, but this raises an interesting point regarding Facebook’s signalling potential.

Now, I have not exactly written down a formal theoretical model. Rather, this post is really just me theorizing from the hip, so bear with me.

Given the number of people who have a Facebook profile, assume all employers take a look at their prospective employees’ Facebook profiles before hiring them. Assume further that this is common knowledge (i.e., employers know that prospective employees know that employers know that prospective employees know and so on ad infinitum that employers look at Facebook profiles).

In that case, not having a Facebook profile serves as a signal of sorts. That is, not having a Facebook profile — or having a Facebook profile, but one that’s hidden from searches — could be a signal that whatever information one’s Facebook profile would contain or contains could be perceived as negative by one’s prospective employers. It is in this sense that not having a Facebook profile could be a liability.

I doubt not having a Facebook profile is actually a liability on the job market. For one, the author of the New York Times letter seems to assume that because the finalists both had Facebook profiles, those who did not did not have a Facebook profile did not make it to the final round of selection. I am not certain I follow that logic.

More importantly, if not having a Facebook profile were a liability, people would eventually create two Facebook profiles for themselves — a real one populated with their real friends, and a fake one populated with fake friends, which can apparently be purchased by the thousands.

I’ll admit that I routinely search Facebook to see if potential colleagues and prospective students have a profile. But my reaction when I cannot find anything is usually to think that said potential colleague or prospective student was smart to use Facebook’s privacy settings so effectively.


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  1. Bonnie Koenig

    Interesting discussion, Marc. I suspect how potential employers use a candidate’s online presence will continue to evolve as the platforms and guidelines and protocols for using them evolve. My impression is that at the current time having a LinkedIn profile would be more important to a prospective employer than a FaceBook one. That provides more employment relevant information. FaceBook, as you note, should be somewhat private, and if it is not, depending on what is there, it could potentially be more of a liability than a ‘calling card’. I don’t hire at the current time, but if I did, that is how I would approach it. Thanks for starting an interesting conversation…

  2. Marc F. Bellemare

    You’re welcome, Bonnie, and thanks for reading and commenting! I wouldn’t know about LinkedIn, to be honest. In academic circles, it has fewer users than Facebook or Twitter. I think among academic researchers, LinkedIn is perceived as something for people in the private sector. This is especially true given that there is no uncertainty over what counts for us. Publications are really the coin of the realm, and a Google Scholar search tells you all you need to know about an academic’s publication record. That is, if they don’t advertise it themselves, as I and many other academics do.

    Regarding Facebook, I guess my argument was more that it contains little positive information, only negative information. So closing off your Facebook profile could become an indicator that you have too much negative information on there. This is especially true given that one only has partial control on what other people in one’s social network are saying. In other words, guilt by association.

  3. Kevin Heisey

    This is a fascinating topic all around. I think the answer to the letter writer’s question is “yes” for certain positions. I can easily see where it would be highly desirable for somebody in a public, leadership position like a pastor or minister for a church to have a strong social media presence. That’s where the people are.

    For other positions, it would be preferred that the candidate isn’t on Facebook at all- to be extreme, CIA agent..For example, my sister who works in public schools is strictly forbidden from having a Facebook profile, though I think she established one for her dog and gets in on the fun that way.