An Obscene Applicant Raises Some Good Real-world Hiring Questions

As you may have read about or seen on TV, I recently rejected someone’s job application via AngelList’s Talent Platform. As an independent recruiter working with select clients in the Boston tech startup scene, this is a pretty routine occurrence.

I rejected this particular applicant because I recognized him from a different social media platform — OKCupid. Convoluted as the incident unfolded, it began when my friend posted some graphic and threatening messages a guy had sent her via OKCupid to her Facebook newsfeed.

This kind of thing happens a lot; both men and women are guilty of sending unsolicited or otherwise unwanted, offensive messages to strangers on online dating platforms. To be completely fair, the recipients are also often guilty of sharing these ridiculous messages with friends both on- and offline. I have certainly showed friends my OKCupid inbox on my phone before. But this guy’s messages were much worse than the typical unsolicited dick pic — he was calling her obscene names and threatening sexual assault.

Unfortunately for him, he had used his LinkedIn head shot as one of his OKCupid profile photos, and it was very easy for me to confirm his identity via a reverse Google image search. To any seasoned recruiter, I deduced his real identity using well-known tricks of the trade; people often do not realize how much information is public and readily accessible via social media. For anyone interested, here is the original uncensored reddit thread, here is the local news’ coverage on the incident, and here is a reactionary reddit thread on /r/OKCupid.

This incident and the subsequent online reaction brings up many political and socio-economic issues, but here I’m going to focus on the fuzzy line between discrimination and “cultural fit” in hiring practices. While this applicant was clearly in the wrong, the incident does raise questions of where potential employers draw the line when reviewing applicants’ social media.

Discrimination as defined under Massachusetts employment laws dictates that employers may not refuse job applicants consideration for employment for a number of reasons, like race, religion, age, gender, and more.

Despite all of these protections for the applicant, Massachusetts is still an at-will state and reserves the right to reject an application for employment for any reason that does not fall under a protected class. Job seekers are not entitled to gainful employment, though a significant portion of them believe that they are.

Many of these categories are challenging to navigate for the layman and require professional legal advice, as they are subject to so many semantic and seemingly arbitrary exceptions. Take for example the H1-B versus TN visa process in relation to national origin, or various industries’ ability to deny applicants based on criminal record due to legitimate business needs despite Massachusetts’ “ban the box” laws. There are a lot of gray areas with regard to employment discrimination cases as to what constitutes protected conduct.

What makes this ambiguity especially concerning is that the general public (or at least my target demographic on reddit — young guys who spend too much time on the computer), doesn’t seem to realize just how public the information you put on social media is. Like some job seekers, a lot of people seem to think that most are entitled to a certain level of privacy online, which is simply untrue.

Like most recruiters, I use a variety of sources when evaluating candidates — LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, AngelList, github, reddit, dribbble, the list goes on. Most people’s social media is pretty benign: shared memes and jokes, vacation photos, interactions with friends and family. When looking at people’s social media, I’m mostly looking to corroborate facts and timelines on their resume — where they live, previous jobs, alma mater, etc. If they’ve put enough information out there, I might also get an accurate glimpse of their personality, which is very helpful in hiring.

The “accurate glimpse” of an applicant’s personality is difficult to capture in interviewing. The anxiety of evaluation puts most people on their best behavior, so ascertaining a person’s true nature in the small amount of time you can both afford for interviewing can be challenging. Reference checks can contribute useful information, but only if the candidate provides decent references. Social media provides an unedited peek at how the candidate behaves when they think authority isn’t looking.

On small, tight-knit engineering teams, personalities matter. These people are spending a lot of time together solving difficult problems. If they don’t get along and are constantly arguing, that hinders business goals. Plus, let’s face it: a bad hire is an aggravating experience for everyone involved (including the bad hire). It’s not a situation I wish on anyone.

Thus, it’s not discrimination to disqualify someone based on a personality trait you don’t think your team would appreciate. But where do recruiters draw the line between protected conduct and an undesirable personality trait? With the advent of social media, we’re often faced with ethical dilemmas to which there is no right answer.

To provide a loaded (if culturally relevant) example, let’s consider a hypothetical candidate who applies for an individual contributor engineering role on my five-person dev team. He looks qualified on paper and the hiring manager liked him on the phone screen, so I do my due diligence and google the candidate before scheduling his onsite interview.

I find his Twitter account, and discover he has recently liked and re-tweeted a lot of pro-Trump news articles. One such article supports building a wall on the U.S./Mexican border. I know my team well enough to know they’re all generally liberal in terms of their political beliefs. Plus, one of them is Hispanic.

As HR, I have to be objective and reserve judgment until I have more information. Tweeting news articles is a pretty passive form of expressing political support. I have to consider additional social media content (if it exists). Consider:

Scenario #1: I discover several recent, heated arguments between him and various commenters on these articles. In a couple comments, the applicant has used racial/ethnic slurs in all caps in response to dissenting opinions.

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Scenario #2: I discover a couple long-form comments on these articles in which he thoughtfully defends Trump’s position, articulating libertarian principles, and advocating immigration and tort reform.

These scenarios are independent of each other and mutually exclusive (in this example, it’s not possible that both are true at the same time).

Now, consider my team. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume they’re all male. They make jokes about the 2016 election, but are generally low-key about politics.

There was one incident a couple months ago when Rob and Jacob had a little too much to drink after work and got into a political debate over how the electoral college works, but it was pretty civil and a couple of us actually learned something. We all got cheese fries afterwards and still tease them for it, so the incident seems normal enough.

The Hispanic guy rolls his eyes and laughs when Trump is brought up in Slack banter, but doesn’t say much on the matter.

What would you do in each scenario, given what you know about the team? Keep in mind that this example is intentionally vague and there are many correct answers.

As this example is intended to illustrate, the hiring decision is dependent on a number of different variables (including current team dynamics), not just isolated incidents. When using social media content to evaluate an applicant’s candidacy, recruiters and other HR professionals should never interpret one piece of content in isolation; you have to take into account additional context and behaviors over time.

What I would do for each scenario:

#1: Take screenshots of the comments and show the hiring manager. Express my reservations about moving forward with the onsite interview. How would the team react to someone who resorts to racist name-calling when angry? Let him decide how to move forward, and take note of how he handles the situation.

#2: Post the Twitter handle and links to the comments in the #recruiting Slack channel and see how the team reacts. Political views are not a protected class, but it still seems wrong to reject someone for that reason. Plus, the guy is being civil and arguing his points well — there’s a chance the team might actually like him a lot. I’m particularly interested in my Hispanic co-worker’s reaction; business needs dictate that I prioritize the comfort level of a current employee over those of a prospective employee.

What would you do in each scenario?

Sam Oliver is an independent technical recruiter based in Boston. She focuses on early-stage ventures in the information security space. Follow her on Twitter @samanthakoliver

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