NEW YORK (

MainStreet

) -- Employers have come under fire in recent months for using tactics such as

credit checks

to vet job applicants, but it turns out there may be a more effective way to screen candidates: Facebook.

In a paper published this month in the

Journal of Applied Social Psychology

, researchers asked several Facebook users and human resources experts to take five to 10 minutes to review the Facebook profiles of 274 undergraduate students and rate them on the big five personality traits commonly used by managers to assess whether to hire a candidate. These include neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Researchers say looking at personality traits via social networking for a few minutes can give employers as much information as significant others and close friends might claim.

The researchers conducted a follow-up survey six months later, this time asking the supervisors of those students who were employed to rate their job performance. In total, just 69 students from the original set passed along their supervisor's contact information - the researchers admit this is a relatively small sample pool -- but the supervisors' responses strongly matched up with the ratings from the evaluators six months earlier.

In fact, the correlation was so strong that the researchers concluded, "

Observer ratings of personality traits via

social networking Web sites are roughly as accurate as ratings made by individuals who have detailed knowledge of the ratee, such as their significant others and close friends."

While that may be good news for recruiters, it's a potentially frightening prospect for many job hunters. In effect, the study says that someone looking at your Facebook profile for 10 minutes can judge your character as well as a close acquaintance who has firsthand knowledge about your background. At the very least, it's one more reason to be mindful about

what information you make publicly available

on this and other social networking sites.

Indeed, the researchers note that widespread use of this strategy could lead to a backlash not unlike the one that has surrounded credit checks.

"Information readily available on

social networking sites might not be legal to ascertain or could increase the liability of an organization because of the potential for adverse impact," the researchers note in the paper. For example, hiring managers are

not supposed to ask candidates questions

about race or religion, but this information is often easy to find on Facebook, whether employers are explicitly looking for it or not. "Although some employers might attempt to focus on job-related social networking information, there is also nonjob-relevant information that could be used inappropriately for evaluating applicants ... resulting in biased hiring decisions."

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