Hiring Charlie Sheen: Separating the Personal From the Professional

Mar 15, 2011
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Charlie Sheen’s recent firing by CBS was likely well deserved. It followed a very public war with his producer and widespread publicity about his bizarre behavior and personal life. But scratch the surface and the decision seems illogical. His behavior today is no different than when he was hired for the show. The show is a hit and his antics haven’t turned off the viewers and he’s making money for his employer, so what’s the problem?

This is similar to what many employers do when recruiting: rejecting candidates for reasons completely unrelated to any ability to do the job.

With social media it’s very easy to do so now. Over 80% of recruiters consider personal data posted online when evaluating a candidate and look up social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal web sites and blogs, and even sites like Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist. This seems hypocritical since we’re supposed to make hiring decisions using job-related information assessed as objectively as possible. But most personal information collected online doesn’t meet those criteria. Much of it is unverifiable, and there’s no reliable way to know how it will impact the candidate’s performance on the job.

Keeping it Professional

There are some aspects of any candidate’s personal life that should get them rejected from the hiring process — convictions for violent crime or clear demonstration of illegal behavior — but most personal behavior doesn’t fall into those categories. I recently read an account of a hospital that rejected a well-qualified physician candidate because of some apparently embarrassing pictures found on her Facebook page. The explanation was that they didn’t want patients finding those. I wonder if a lot of patients go looking up their doctor’s Facebook page, and if they do are they going to refuse treatment based on what they find? Did the hospital administration think they were going to get calls from patients saying, “Hey, I can’t accept this diagnosis. Have you seen what’s on her Facebook page?”

How much of a person’s personal life is truly relevant to the job? Obviously even a single instance of some behaviors is completely unacceptable, but until it’s established that candidates actually demonstrate those, it’s foolish to reject them based on some arbitrary moral standard. CBS justified Charlie’s firing citing the publicity around his “dangerously self-destructive behavior.” That behavior didn’t have any negative effect on his show’s ratings. Before rejecting a candidate, think if customers or others the candidate will come in contact with really care — like the example of the hospital above. If they don’t, then does it really make sense to reject a candidate based on personal information?

The simple fact is that it’s near impossible to link most personal behavior to job performance in an objective way. Any attempt to do so requires uncertain judgement applied inconsistently. A candidate that changed the privacy settings on their Facebook page could hide any examples of inappropriate behavior and get hired while one who didn’t do so may get excluded. If a candidate’s Facebook page suggests he likes drinking, then it doesn’t prove that he’s in the habit of showing up for work drunk. Until someone completes a study showing job performance scores have a strong correlation with Facebook pictures of drinking it’s foolish to assume they prove anything.

Some suggest poor writing and bad grammar in Facebook profiles and in blog entries can raise a red flag about communication skills. That may be true, but blog-writing tools and Facebook lack spelling and grammar checkers, and the posts are examples of casual writing. How many people would show the same limitations if Word lacked those features?

The Charlie Sheen Standard

Using personal information to evaluate candidates is getting to be the norm. In Maryland the state recently suspended a policy that asked job applicants to provide their Facebook login and password. What they expected to find was never clear, but lacking a coherent policy any employer should consider the following when evaluating personal information.

  • Is it well established (by industrial psychology, behavioral science, or medical research) that people displaying a certain behavior in their personal life also repeat it in their professional lives?
  • Can the behavior that’s objectionable be defined? That’s not as easy as it may seem; take drinking, as an example. Drinking what — beer, hard liquor, wine? How much? Over what amount of time? How many examples of the behavior have to be displayed before the candidate is rejected? One? Three? Ten?
  • Can the behavior be measured through the medium being used? What would have to be mentioned in a post or picture to show that a person has been drinking? Is holding up a glass of colored liquid proof enough? This is why assessment tests are validated before being used.

Will customers or others who work with the candidate suffer any harm because of the personal behavior?

If the answers to the above questions aren’t “yes,” then candidates are being rejected based on personal prejudices and intangibles that have no link to job performance. Even if there were an objective way to measure inappropriate personal behavior, any “test” of the same may not be much use. Drug tests, considered highly objective, miss most drug users. About 8% of Americans are estimated to use illegal drugs, but a Federal Government drug testing program found only 153 employees testing positive out of 29,000 tested — about 0.005%. The Feds have a workforce most representative of the population, so it’s the test that’s failing. When something as precise as a drug test produces so many false negatives, just how likely is it that an evaluation of candidates based on personal information will be accurate?

I know several recruiters who rationalize their decisions by saying “I know it when I see it” or “I can always tell.” That’s right up there with the hiring manager that claims “I can judge a candidate by their handshake.” That kind of thinking has no place in a good recruiting process. Using the logic demonstrated by some in assessing people based on their personal lives this guy would be unqualified for the job he’s got.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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