Facebook Profiles as Predictors of Job Performance? Maybe…but not yet.

Some newspapers and radio stations recently picked up a story that Facebook profiles can be revealing, and can yield information more predictive of job performance than typical self-report personality questionnaires or even an IQ test.

So first off, this is clearly an interesting idea. A rich Facebook profile contains information about a person’s actual behavior, and past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.  Every parent knows that a quick Facebook search can reveal a lot about a potential new babysitter.  One wonders if that could scale to the corporate level for hiring, and whether it would be ethical to do so?

But let’s start with the surprising assertion, at least as represented in the LA Times story, that the Facebook profile ratings were better predictors of job performance than an IQ test.  A most consistent finding from the last 50 years of organizational psychology research is that cognitive ability is the strongest predictor of job performance, sometimes followed closely by measures of conscientiousness (and recently there has been interest in perseverance or grit).  So has the Facebook study upended all this established research?  Not at all, and the reason lies in the enormous gap between the claims about the study’s outcomes, and the details of what was actually done.

The researchers had two college population samples.  In Study 1 they had job performance ratings for the part-time college jobs of about 10% of the original sample.  But in study 1 they did not have any IQ or cognitive ability measure.  In Study 2 they gathered Wonderlic’s measure of cognitive ability, but this time they had no job performance data but rather college GPA which they say is correlated with job performance.   And it should be put into context too that only some of the college students were careless enough to have publicly available facebook profiles.  All in all this particular research has very little of value to add about predicting job performance in any real world setting.

Ultimately the clues we reveal about ourselves as we socialize and work on the web will prove to be highly predictive of job performance.  After all, internet marketing based on search and social network behavior is enormously successful.  It is obvious that job performance and health and any number of other future high-stakes outcomes will be predicted with increasing accuracy from online behavior, and a great number of ethical questions will ensue.  But those fascinating developments will come from better data and better designed studies than the material recently referenced by the LA Times.