Cyber-vetting’s Usage, Risk, and Future

Sep 14, 2011

Cyber-vetting may sound like solely a way to dig up dirt about someone. But it can be used to not only avoid a bad hire, but also help perform a good hire and increase the chance of a good fit.

About 80% of employers search and track the online activities of candidates in a practice often referred to as cyber-vetting. How and why is this done? How should you do it? Where is it going?

Here are a couple of ways employers are using cyber-vetting to assess candidates:

For a writing position, the employer will check a candidate’s blog or any writing he or she has done online, and if grammatical errors and typos are legion, they may not want to hire that person. But even more generally, employers see good writing as a measure of attention to detail, professionalism, and conscientiousness for any job, just as they would assess mistakes on a resume. Similarly, if an employer is looking for a social media manager, but can’t find an account on Google+ or Twitter for the candidate, they may wonder if he or she is on top of their game.

For professions in which a network is important, such as sales or recruiting, the connections themselves can be seen as an asset for the potential employer and was mentioned at least once in research by Brenda L. Berkelaar, assistant professor at the University of Texas-Austin, who has published research on cyber-vetting, and is about to release more on the topic.

Another example of how cyber-vetting can help both the candidate and employer can be found in a candidate’s participation in online forums. This is particularly beneficial for those seeking technical jobs, but is becoming more prevalent for a variety of industries in which people ask questions online, as the responses are often viewed as a sign of technical expertise. Because of this, such online platforms are sometimes used as a sourcing tool for employers. On the flip side, however, for individuals at the other end of the spectrum—those who can be found playing online all day instead of doing their job—cyber-vetting can backfire in a big way.

Handle With Care

Because cyber-vetting is often done without the candidate’s knowledge and has the potential to provide employers with access to data that can lead to discrimination (i.e. age, sex, race, religion, etc.), it can be seen as a questionable practice.

When a finalist for a chief of police position in Northern California became the subject of cyber-vetting, a very inappropriate Facebook page appeared. Before discounting the candidate, the recruiting team confronted him, only to find out that it was not his page. Upon further investigation, recruiters discovered that the page had been created by his rival.

This is one of the many cases author Ed Appel discusses in his book, Internet Searches for Vetting, Investigation and Open-Source Intelligence. Stories like this make the practice of cyber-vetting a topic of discussion and academic research.

If You Don’t, Managers Will

The future of cyber-vetting is going in two directions.

The first one is the extension of the simple Google search, thanks to sites that have consolidated search results from multiple sources and use the model of metasearch engines like Metacrawler or Dogpile to create a more comprehensive profile.

The second direction is to take a mixed approach in which you involve candidates to get detailed feedback from real colleagues by using the collective intelligence model of Yelp or Amazon’s product rating. In both cases, the results are often surprising in terms of what is revealed. The site Spokeo, an example of the first direction, shows data that employers will probably never want candidates to see: gender, age, race, religion, political affiliation, and details on hobbies, education, and occupation. At Checkster on the other hand, we take a different approach, requesting candidates to invite pre-defined colleagues to rate them confidentially online along a set of attributes that are relevant to the employer and can provide them a good way to assess the match, taking advantage the accuracy of collective intelligence.

Cyber-vetting will be used more and more by organizations, first to avoid surprises, and more as a digital background and fact-checking tool. Second, it will be used as a way to assess the expertise, motivation, and in some aspects the character of the candidates. Finally, it will expand into leveraging the collective intelligence that social network contains.

We know that even if HR does not perform cyber-vetting, or admit to doing so, hiring managers will. So as Appel mentions, the point is not to assist employers on how to avoid cyber-vetting, but rather give guidelines on how to perform it successfully.

Recommended Guidelines

There are three simple guidelines to follow in order to make sure you are not misled by false online identities or feedback, and that you do not cross the line by making it a source of discrimination:

  1. Make sure you inform the candidate that you are going to perform cyber-vetting. You can even ask the candidate to provide information (i.e. emails, websites, aliases, etc.) as to where to find them online.
  2. If you find compromising data, make sure to validate it first, as it may not truly belong to the candidate. If time does not permit for such verification, just know you are at risk of having the false information negatively impact your organization.
  3. Make sure any collective intelligence solution you use has a fraud protection algorithm.

If you are really strict, you can do like some employers and inform candidates when they are onsite that you are going to perform cyber-vetting, but then ask them to go to their online accounts with you (you do not ask for passwords) so you can see the suitability of their exchanges. When done this way, some people opt out, and this is often the case for high-risk jobs. Today the White House asks candidates to reveal any online content that may be compromising before they are nominated.

Cyber-vetting is a standard practice in its basic form and will continue to evolve in the future. Because technology moves quickly, make sure you have guidelines in place to avoid any legal issues.

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