Catch Me if You Can

You have a great candidate who seems ideal for the job you’re looking to fill and you start researching her online. You land on her Facebook page where you see a picture of her and your spouse or partner, which suggests that they’re more than friends. What do you do?

  1. You shred the resume and delete it from your ATS
  2. You make up a reason why she’s unqualified
  3. You look up the classifieds in Soldier of Fortune magazine
  4. You decide to interview her anyway

If you picked #4, you’d be in the minority.

In a recent survey by Microsoft 84 percent of U.S. recruiters think it is proper to consider personal data posted online when evaluating a candidate and do online research using search engines, social networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal Web sites and blogs, Twitter, online-gaming sites, and even classifieds, and auction sites like Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, etc. What they expect to find in that last category is a mystery, but I guess you never know. Now whether all this “research” does anything to improve the quality of hires, or it’s just an excuse for voyeurism, is something we’ll likely never know. The survey doesn’t address results or even ask about the respondent’s perception of results.

Sauce for the Goose

If the survey numbers are true, then thousands of hiring decisions are being made based on information that may or may not be valid, from sources that may or may not be reliable, and using criteria that may or may not be relevant to hiring. What could go wrong? The Shirely Sherrod case that has been in the news is a perfect illustration of what can happen when an employment decision is made without understanding the context or the credibility of the source. And that involved dozens of people up to the level of the White House.

The survey mentions that concerns about lifestyle, inappropriate comments, and unsuitable photos and videos top the list of reasons that those surveyed give for rejecting a candidate. Well, since these criteria are so well defined with no possibility for ambiguity, it must be all right to use them. But recruiters also rejected applicants because of inappropriate comments by friends, family, and colleagues. So it’s acceptable to reject candidates based on gossip?

Relying on online information in a hiring decision can cut both ways. Already, services like Reputation Defender are offering to clean up people’s online reputations by bombarding the web with positive information about its customers, either creating new Web pages or by multiplying links to existing ones to ensure they show up at the top of any Google search. What’s to stop candidates from creating largely fake online personas when they know that recruiters put so much weight on information they find online? Almost half of the recruiters in the Microsoft survey said that a positive online reputation influences the candidate’s application to a great extent.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The danger for employers is that continuing to make hiring decisions based on data collected online will generate a legislative backlash. Several states –New York, California, and Colorado — already prohibit employers from taking any employment related actions based on legal off-duty conduct. It’s not a reach to see those provisions being extended to hiring decisions. And Congress may get in on the act. In times like these when jobs are scarce, an issue like this can garner plenty of bipartisan support. And that could be a disaster, since laws made in response to populist anger will likely make life difficult. For starters, they would impose very onerous reporting burdens on employers.

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Some would argue that any such laws would be difficult to enforce, since a lot of this kind of research on candidates can be done anonymously. But that’s not quite true. Digital forensics is the fastest growing field in the legal profession, and the tools to discover where someone’s been online are getting very sophisticated.

The bigger issue: what’s the value being gained from all this online research? Few, if any, employers have specific policies and rules about how to interpret online information. Unlike information obtained from background checks, which is highly structured and obtained from very credible sources, virtually everything seen online is unstructured and from sources of unknown credibility. Ninety percent of respondents in the Microsoft survey claimed that they take steps to corroborate the authenticity of information they collect online. How exactly does one do that? If they see a picture of a candidate holding a glass of what appears to be beer do they track down the others in the picture and ask if the candidate is routinely drunk?

It appears that much of this activity is done because it’s possible, not because it results in better quality hires. It gives the appearance of having done a good job in evaluating a candidate when there’s no evidence that it makes any difference at all. There are examples of some employer that avoided making a genuinely bad hire because of something discovered online, but those stories don’t establish that aimless trolling for information improves the hiring process.

Interestingly among the survey respondents almost 90% of male recruiters check out candidates online, compared to only about 60% of female recruiters. So maybe it is about voyeurism and not hires. But recruiters are hard-working people, who often get little respect and appreciation. Who’s to deny them some fun?

Raghav Singh, director of analytics in Korn Ferry's products group, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His current role includes developing data and analytics products to support candidate sourcing. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.  

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