By Derek Chapman, Ph.D
Remember that photo of you passed out after a night of debauchery back in college- kindly tagged by your friend on his Facebook page? Probably not, but your prospective new employer may be looking at it right now. Sounds creepy? Perhaps, but the latest trend sweeping HR is employers using your social network information- tweets, forum postings, texts, messages, YouTube rants, anything that might reveal secrets about you.
“Have we crossed the line between uncovering the truth about applicants and being respectful of their privacy?”
What is driving this trend? Employers are frustrated when they find out the candidate they just hired turns out to be a dud or worse, a public embarrassment. Interviews and resumes do not typically shed light on whether Johnny has addiction problems, is a member of potentially embarrassing groups, posts shirtless photos of themselves on love forums or has a tendency to overshare on twitter. Research shows that applicants can and do manage their impressions in interviews and on their resumes. But many prospective employees have voluntarily put a mountain of data about themselves for all to see on social media. We forget that the internet never forgets. We forget that our online friends have friends. We forget that last year we shared all of our information and our information from our friends to marketers in exchange for a free game to play. It is our gullibility that no one will ever assemble all of these things to find out about us that drives its usefulness. And if you think deleting something makes it go away you should learn about caching. Yes, I know. That sinking feeling in your stomach right now is justified.
Also driving this trend is HR’s new need to be trendy. HR people and the people they report to want to be seen to be keeping current on what is happening now. How do we get to the Millenials? How do we leverage our new social media strategy to help with recruiting and selection? We are recruiting with social media, what else can we do? Look at me boss, I’m thinking outside the box! These types of questions drive the curious into the marketing arms of a host of new companies seeking to capitalize on the lucrative and fast-changing market of HR information from the internet.
The science backing these approaches is new and evolving but early work is promising. Our unguarded information on the internet can be a better predictor of future behavior than the information we share voluntarily with employers. For example, in a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers obtained personality data from employees and also got permission to look at their Facebook pages. Trained coders looked at the Facebook pages for evidence of extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and other personality information that can be inferred from the postings, photos etc. They also got performance data from the participant’s bosses. The results showed that the prediction power of self-reported personality (on personality questionnaires) predicted performance but that the additional information from Facebook pages added a significant amount to the prediction of performance. Cool stuff.
Some employers come right out and ask you for things like to friend you on Facebook or your twitter password and username. You don’t have to give it to them but if you want the job… you get the picture (and they get all of yours). Other employers believe they can gather this information anonymously using algorithms and technologies readily available without you ever knowing that you had been ‘creeped’ by them. Sort of like hiring a private investigator to root through your trash to find compromising receipts, love letters or beer bottles. After all, you left the trash sitting there, all we did was look through it.
So what can go wrong? There is a long scientific history studying applicant reactions to selection procedures. This literature talks about what candidates feel is fair or unfair and how they react. We know that applicants like unstructured interviews, work simulations, and assessment centers but hate drug testing and graphology. We also know that applicants routinely drop out of the applicant pool, say bad things about your company to others, and are also are less likely to buy your products and services in the future when they have negative reactions to the selection process. If you thought they hated graphology, wait to you hear what they think of you dredging up their drunken pleas to their girlfriend on twitter four years ago.
Here are six reasons why this idea, despite its predictive potential is likely to fail:
1) Know that if potential job applicants find out you are creeping them online they will react very negatively. Worse, they will tell everyone they know about how you violated them. Not the kind of PR you want. Not sure about that? Ask anyone what their reaction would be to these procedures. Let me know what they say. Feel free to comment below.
2) Just like the secrets you are finding out about your applicants, your online activities will likely become known eventually. Whose head will roll if this embarrassment gets out?
3) What are the legal ramifications? This is a massive can of legal worms waiting to make your life hell. Online information can reveal gender, race, disabilities, age, and any other protected ground you can imagine. Good luck sitting in court telling the judge that you ignored that information and focused only on the job relevant stuff.
4) Identity error. There are often thousands of people with similar names. If you get the wrong information about the applicant you are going to be relying on irrelevant data potentially screening out employees based on tweets some other person made (see point 3 again).
5) It won’t last. The main reason this approach works is that people aren’t that guarded about the information they share because they believe it is limited or private. As soon as word gets out that companies do this you will see people sharing less or worse, the industry for fake Facebook personas, instant job friendly tweet packs for sale etc. will take off. At least the next crop of potential employees will see it coming and be forewarned.
6) Government legislation. Once this gets big you can imagine the backlash. And there is nothing more enticing to a government than introducing new privacy legislation to protect the people.
Derek Chapman is a professor, entrepreneur, advisor, award winning researcher, consultant and creative thinker who helps organizations improve their recruiting and selection systems. He holds a doctorate in Industrial & Organizational Psychology, is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary and is president and founder of CounterpartMatch the leading company providing online matching of applicant values with organizational culture.