Online practices changing world of work
It is important for academics to have a platform to share recent research-based findings with the wider business community and, in return, receive feedback on the likely impact and practical implications.
That, indeed, is the express purpose of the [email protected] series of lunchtime presentations. Each event gives expert speakers the chance to highlight emerging issues and then invite comment and questions on what they may mean for management practice and corporate decision making.
The latest session, held in Central on May 9, focused on how the development of the online labour market (OLM) has affected hiring outcomes of workers of different genders and why social media is shaping the concept of personal branding.
The OLM sector, where both initial hiring and subsequent work are done online, is expanding at an exponential rate. Employers, large and small, see the benefits in terms of cost and efficiency of outsourcing certain types of work, with payment either job-based or at an agreed hourly rate. And a fast growing pool of labour, whether working part-time, on one-off assignments or on longer-term contracts, is coming to appreciate the plus points of having greater flexibility and less restrictive corporate ties.
Jing Wang, Assistant Professor in the HKUST Business School, explained that OLM work now includes software and web development, multimedia and administrative support, sales and marketing, writing and editing, logo design, and many others.
The “marketplace” facilitates the efficient matching of employers and workers across geographical boundaries. And, she noted, the OLM phenomenon also has important social and economic implications, with the market projected to become a US$23 billion industry by 2020.
Her research shows that gender-based stereotypes have an impact on hiring preferences, with an overall 13 per cent advantage for females over males. And hirers’ perceptions about underlying gender-specific traits clearly contribute to this bias.
“In traditional labour markets, many employers still hire ‘John’ over ‘Jennifer’ even if the applicants have similar characteristics, training and performance in interviews,” Wang said. “But OLM hiring is very different. Although employers can observe the detailed information available on each applicant’s qualifications, skills, salary requirements, and previous job ratings and earnings, there is usually no face-to-face interaction. As a result, employers’ information on about attitude and personality are highly restricted in the online environment.”
Employers may, of course, be able to infer gender from names and photos. That too, though, can provide a head start for women applicants, and not just in the traditionally female-dominated occupations but also in the gender-neutral occupations.
“Employers still tend to believe that female workers are more trustworthy and cooperative, which gives them an advantage in the OLM sector,” said Wang, who makes extensive use of data mining and econometric techniques in her research “We do see, though, that hiring bias diminishes as employers get more experience on a platform.”
Following on, Yanzhen Chen, also an Assistant Professor at HKUST Business School, spoke about the growing use of social media to boost online personal branding. In particular, she looked at the impact this is having on job seekers, executive employment and compensation negotiations – and offered a word of warning that it can sometimes backfire.
As an illustration, Chen drew on examples from the Twitter feeds of senior executives at various Fortune 500 companies. Not surprisingly, similar career related contents crop up repeatedly in the postings of individuals keen to publicise their views and enhance their career prospects in this way.
It has been said that using social media to create a personal brand is now essential and, according to Forbes magazine, this style of self-promotion has become a “powerful leadership enabler”. However, in this study Chen showed that, rather than winning friends and influencing people, self-promoting individuals may instead make themselves seem conceited, narcissistic, self-aggrandising – and disliked.
In academic studies, the challenge is to quantify the value of personal branding by first looking for causality with labour market performance and then assessing its roles in specific executive job markets.
“We can use text-mining technology to capture the job-related part of tweets,” said Chen, whose research interests cover artificial intelligence in transforming corporate governance and financial analytics. “We also need a structural model which can disentangle personal branding’s effect on job acquisition and compensation negotiation.”
At this point, though, the evidence strongly suggests that strategic use of social media to disseminate opinions and polish one’s image does pay off for those aiming to move into C-suite or equivalent roles.
“So far, Twitter has served as an ideal vehicle for personal branding for executives, politicians and scholars using verified Twitter accounts,” Chen said. “It helps with job acquisition, but not necessarily with compensation negotiations. So, in a sense, it seems executives can tweet themselves to the top.”