These are tough times to be an unemployed job seeker. During in-depth interviews job seekers frequently tell me that applying for jobs “feels like you’re applying to a black hole.” Understandably so: Job seekers may submit hundreds of applications electronically without receiving a single acknowledgement. They often suspect that nobody even looks at their resumes.
In these dark times, job seekers who turn to support organizations or advice books often learn of a new “solution,” a technology that (in the words of one employment counselor) “has revolutionized job searching.” The technology is social media, and specifically social networking sites (SNS), such as LinkedIn. Support organizations across the U.S., including state-run “One Stop” centers, are now offering trainings to job seekers on how to use SNS platforms like LinkedIn. The mantra I hear at these trainings is that “if you are not on LinkedIn you are invisible.” The message resonates with job seekers.
Though we have only limited data on the use of SNS for job searching, we do know that in general the use of SNS is exploding globally. The appeal of SNS to job seekers is straightforward. Social networks are critical for career success, and SNS provide an easy way for a job seeker not only to keep up with existing contacts, but also to search their contacts, and their contacts’ contacts, and so forth –and to do this by occupation, location, and other keywords. Unlike time-consuming and anxiety-inducing social networking events, SNS allow you to do targeted networking while in your pajamas. Many job seekers feel awkward networking in person, but find it possible to be “digitally extroverted.” Many like their ability to carefully “set the stage” for online presentations-of-self.
And it does seem to be true that having a presence on SNS is imperative these days. A recent survey of members of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that in 2011 more than half of the organizations that responded (56%) used SNS to search for candidates, a dramatic increase from 2008. In my interviews, recruiters tell me that SNS provide them with two types of benefits: First, it gives them “thicker” and more trustworthy information on candidates. Second, and most importantly, it gives them the ability to search for “passive” candidates, who may be open to new opportunities but are not actively searching.
What does all this mean for unemployed job seekers? For some, SNS may indeed make it easier to use and expand their networks to find work. But for those who are not finding work, my interviews reveal another type of effect. While job seekers are certainly aware of the present unemployment crisis, the advice discourse on the SNS “solution” has the unintended effect of leading some to view their continued unemployment as primarily a result of not being savvy enough in using social media. If skillful use of SNS is the key to finding work, they reason, and if I am not finding work, I must be doing something wrong in my use of SNS. These job seekers are heeding Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s advice that those who are out of work “should blame themselves.”
But beyond such subjective reactions, I suspect that the rise of SNS may have two further implications for labor market outcomes and (in)equality of opportunity.
The first and more familiar mechanism is digital inequality or the “digital divide.” A line of research shows persistent inequality in access and ability to use digital technologies along the lines of income, education and race. We can expect increasing inequality in labor market outcomes to the extent that access to digital intermediaries is relatively less equally distributed than access to older intermediaries such as newspapers, the telephone, and friends.
The second mechanism, what I call “SNS filtering” practices, have not received much scholarly attention but may have significant implications for inequality of outcomes even among job seekers who are adept at using SNS. These concerns about filtering practices arise when we reconsider the reasons recruiters give when asked why SNS is so useful to them. Recall that employers appreciate the “thick data” these sites provide about candidates. Unlike resumes and cover letters, SNS profiles provides a richer source of information –including photographs. As one recruiter put it: “I definitely prefer to see a picture [on a profile]. It’s priceless to get a sense of the person.” Past research should make us concerned that this “sense” may well reflect reactions to age, race, ethnicity, looks, and other factors that are less salient in a traditional resume, and which may disadvantage entire categories of applicants at the initial screening stage. More than this: Employers also gain access to information about other elements of a candidate’s social media presence, which may include political or religious views expressed on blogs, or online discussions about medical issues. Social media’s blurring of the boundaries between public and private lives raise concerns about the effects of job seekers’ private lives being part of the mix of information employers use to screen candidates.
Even more than thick data, the benefit employers most frequently mention for using SNS is the ease of finding “passive” job seekers. These are workers who have put up their profiles, indicating that they are open to new opportunities, but are not actively applying for the position. Typically, the distinguishing characteristic of such job seekers is that they are currently employed. SNS drastically reduce the costs to employers of finding passive candidates, and thus make feasible the filtering out of unemployed and often stigmatized “active” job seekers. This dynamic may be one factor contributing to the current record rates of long-term unemployment. I note that proposed laws banning discrimination against the unemployed do not deal with this issue.
Is it all negative? While I have highlighted some potential ways in which the rise in SNS may increase labor market inequalities, there are also potential upsides to the growth of social media to unemployed workers. In addition to helping some job seekers find work, more broadly, SNS may empower workers by facilitating the exchange of information about employers and work conditions, as well as make more possible collective action. For example, the recent Occupy Wall Street protests, which prominently include unemployed workers, extensively rely on social media to connect and mobilize people who share frustrations and critiques. In this context, it remains an open and important question how workers using social media might manage the tension of, one the one hand, utilizing the full potential of this technology to collectively and politically engage, while at the same time, maintaining an online presence that is appealing to a broad range of potential employers who use social media to screen candidates.