Tasked with finding matches for the highest-ranking positions in business, executive recruiters rely on their networks to find candidates. With websites such as Facebook and Twitter linking personal and professional worlds, it seems like a natural move to forgo the phone tree in favor of web connections.
Not so fast, say local recruiters.
As social media continues to creep into the professional realm, some experts predict it will play a larger role in recruiting. But with growing headlines about employees posting inappropriate content, recruiters — and executives — have proceeded with caution when it comes to sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“I would think that when you get to a certain level — and you’ve been in enough meetings about liability and making sure that you are professional — that you would really shy away from exposing yourself,” says Cathy Galbraith, an executive recruiter with Propp Christensen Caniglia LLP in Roseville.
The most prominent site for professionals is LinkedIn, which allows users to set up profiles with employment history. This allows recruiters to vet potential candidates and watch their careers evolve.
“If you don’t have a pretty healthy social network that is verifiable by checking your LinkedIn, you kind of don’t exist,” says Scott Greenburg, an attorney and private venture investor in Seattle. Greenburg trains executive board members on digital business practices. “So I think recruiters are more and more using that as an assessment tool in who you know and what kind of access you have to them … to decide whether you really have the goods to be a good recruit.”
Diane Miller, owner of Wilcox Miller & Nelson, an executive recruiting firm in Sacramento, predicts Facebook could eventually take the lead in social media used for executive recruiting. But for now, she says, the sites are more personal.
In some cases, especially when politics and public perception are involved, social networking won’t help and can possibly hinder a candidate’s chances, says Robert Burg, a partner with Rocklin-based Ralph Andersen and Associates, which has handled searches for public executives, such as the CEO of Los Angeles County and city administrator for Los Angeles.
“Say you were a candidate,” Burg says. “At the very end of our phone screen, I’m going to say to you, ‘Is there anything in your background that would be an embarrassment to you, a client or Ralph Andersen and Associates that you want to disclose now?’ And you start down a list.”
The list, which includes questions about sexual harassment and crimes, has been expanded within the past three years to include whether the candidate has social media profiles. As part of the background check, researchers vet these sites for controversial posts. They don’t always come up empty-handed, even with cautious executives.
“There was a real situation, where (a candidate was) making comments about another community, and it was in a regional area, and the client got offended,” Burg says.
Another problem was profanity.
“I would think that when you get to a certain level that you would really shy away from exposing yourself.”Cathy Galbraith, executive recruiter, Propp Christensen Caniglia LLP
“Be careful. Just be careful,” Burg says. “These are public websites. In this world, you can get in trouble.”
It’s not just social networking that can hinder an executive’s chances at a position. Sometimes all it takes is a Google search, according to Miller.
An employee of a client once found an inflammatory letter to the editor that a candidate had written that could have shown racial intolerance, she says. “I think when somebody’s getting a new boss, the first thing you do is go look on LinkedIn or Facebook or Google them,” Miller says.
Last year, BusinessWeek profiled 50 CEOs, many in the technology and media industries, who used Twitter to increase sales and expand the company’s brand and, in effect, the executive’s brand. Social media has power for executives and business, Greenburg says, but only if it’s used properly.
Greenburg advises corporate boards about the benefits of social media, such as a local restaurant chain that filled its dining room within an hour after tweeting about a prolonged happy hour and the millions of engaged “fans” that Starbucks has on Facebook. He says executives must now understand how to use the sites to stay relevant and valuable to companies.
As recruiters search for executives who would be a value to a company, this knowledge will become more and more important, and those without a strong social network and understanding of these tools will miss out, Greenburg says.
Nearly three-quarters of young adults in their 20s use social networking sites, and about 40 percent of those 30 and older do, according to the latest research by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. More than half of these adults have profiles on more than one site.
“It’s fast becoming what you’ve got to know,” Greenburg says, “not what’d be nice to know.”
A week after graduating with a bachelor’s in accounting, I showed up to my new job at a Big Five accounting firm with the best JC Penney suit my signing bonus could buy. It was the middle of the dot-com boom, and although the term business casual was starting to surface, no one could give a straight answer on its definition.