A great awakening – or jobs spam?

A look at how online social media make everyone a job candidate, and asks whether it is changing recruitment

Being offered a job out of the blue used to be a buzz experienced by only the chosen few. It was an ego-boost for the elite – the high-fliers working contentedly for one employer when the phone rings with an offer of more money, a fancier title, a bigger office or better prospects elsewhere.

But online searching and networking mean a far wider pool of what are known as passive job candidates are getting a call.

LinkedIn, the online social network for professionals, says 76 of the FTSE 100 companies use its huge database to find and approach passive candidates – executives not actively looking for a new job, but with the skills and experience another organisation wants.

“We have quintupled the size of the candidate pool from which employers can hire,” claims David Cohen, a senior director of sales at LinkedIn, which estimates 79 per cent of its 259m members around the world are passive candidates.

But traditional headhunters and executive search firms – who have been in the business of wooing passive candidates for decades – are urging employers to treat online databases with extreme care. “Everyone claims to be brilliant online,” says Andrew Roscoe, head of Egon Zehnder in the UK.

But LinkedIn cannot be ignored. Under chief executive Jeff Weiner – who attributes his big career break to a call from a headhunter – it reported third-quarter revenues last month of $393m, more than half of which comes from its “talent solutions” services to recruiters.

The pitch LinkedIn makes to employers is that passive candidates have more to offer – it shows them research suggesting passive candidates are more likely to want to make an impact than active jobseekers, and need less skill development and demand less recognition.

Employers who buy into LinkedIn’s Recruiter software are able to carry out advanced searches of member data including location, job titles, current employers, past employers, certifications, skillsets and how often they have changed jobs.

LinkedIn also records what its members do on the website – what kind of job postings they view or which company pages they visit. On top of this it uses algorithms to match the content of job postings with keywords and terms listed in member profiles.

“Five years ago, if you wanted to hire someone, you would post the job in a newspaper or on an online job board, only targeting those who are actively seeking,” explains Mr Cohen. “With LinkedIn you can reach out to the rest.”

At Dixons, Europe’s largest specialist electrical retailer, 35 per cent of externally sourced roles were filled via LinkedIn last year, says Bridget Hutchinson, head of recruitment and employer branding. “We started using LinkedIn for head office-type roles, but now all our recruitment teams use it for positions from store managers and store colleagues to graduates,” she says.

“With executive search, LinkedIn is used for information gathering but the approach then is one of a direct phone call due to the sensitivity of these roles. In the past we would have used research companies, but with the tools we have available to us this is now done in-house.”

Doug Baillie, chief HR officer at Unilever, says LinkedIn’s scale and global reach make it appealing. “It’s an important channel for sourcing managerial level roles globally,” he explains. “We’re looking to establish scalable and repeatable ways in which we get the most from LinkedIn and other channels.”

Most of the recruitment done via the website is for junior to middle management roles. But it has senior executive positions in its sights, too.

The details of desirable passive candidates used to be the preserve of headhunters. Yet traditional headhunters and executive search firms say they do not feel threatened by the rise of LinkedIn.

Some already use the site themselves to supplement their own databases. Others say that recruitment into senior positions will always require assessment of characteristics that are difficult to measure from a LinkedIn profile or algorithm-driven search process.

Andrew Setchell, a director at Robert Walters, says some professionals shy away from using LinkedIn. “Lawyers in ‘magic circle’ firms, for example, are careful about posting their details on LinkedIn because it alerts their partners that they are looking for a job,” he says.

“Only 2 per cent of the candidates we place come via professional social networks such as LinkedIn. The vast majority of our candidates come from referrals. The old style ways of attracting passive talent are still there.

“With each candidate you need to be aware of the factors that will push them to leave or pull them to the new opportunity. If you don’t know the person, you won’t know what those factors are and you could lose them before you’ve even had a conversation.”

For Egon Zehnder’s Andrew Roscoe, the key to executive search is long-term relationships. “Identification of individuals is no longer the black art it used to be, because there is so much more information available,” he agrees.

“But we don’t just look at a snapshot of the person. We see individuals over a long period, and so can take into account what they have done before, how well they’re doing in their current job and assess their potential. Working out a person’s potential cannot come from self-assessed comment posted online.”

LinkedIn defends the veracity of the information in its database. “When members are connected there is an internal reliability check,” says Mr Cohen. “The public nature of the network means people you work with will know whether you are being authentic or not.”

Will everyone welcome a job offer in their inbox? Independent researchers believe social networking sites such as these are making people more active than passive.

Sam DeKay, who published a 2008 study on LinkedIn for Bank of New York Mellon and New York’s St John’s University, says social media – and LinkedIn in particular – have blurred the distinction between “passive” and “active” jobseeking.

“The presence of job-related social media, such as LinkedIn, makes it possible continually to obtain references or endorsements and to update employment credentials,” he says.

But as other social networking sites have discovered, members can become protective of their privacy. LinkedIn itself has been accused of accessing email accounts without permission. It might be that one person’s job opportunity is another person’s spam.

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