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What to do when you stumble upon certain details about job candidates online?
By Laurie Ruettimann
No question that software and automation have streamlined processes and made all kinds of HR practices more efficient. But so long as human resources involves humans, technology won’t solve the toughest recruiting and talent-management challenges. Things get messy quickly when trying to source and identify talented employees on the digital frontier.
The history of recruiting on the Internet isn’t that old. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! blazed a trail with a little bit of swagger and a whole lot of manifest destiny. They have spent the past two decades plumbing the depths of the Web—scraping message boards and pillaging chat groups—with the goal of hiring anyone with a heartbeat who knew how to code. Talent is scarce in their world, and they don’t have the “luxury” of discriminating against women, minorities, and older workers.
The rest of us are now playing catch-up, and I worry that we don’t know what we don’t know. Sure, armed with all the comforts of a touchscreen phone and unlimited data plan, we may feel competent, confident, and preordained to incorporate social and mobile tools into all aspects of our business. But when it comes to staffing, we should think twice before abandoning traditional search practices in favor of a social-recruiting strategy that leverages the latest cloud-based platform.
There are real dangers in looking for and scrutinizing potential employees online; you put your organization at risk when you Google candidates and treat information like a transaction.
Shally Steckerl, president of The Sourcing Institute, teaches HR professionals and leaders how to navigate this new, digital world. He believes that online connectivity provides an amazing opportunity to identify talent that doesn’t appear on job boards, in employee referral programs, and on corporate websites. But he acknowledges the potential to make poor judgment calls when dealing with so much data and information.
In short: There are real dangers in looking for and scrutinizing potential employees online; you put your organization at risk when you Google candidates and treat information like a transaction. Ethical behavior is ethical behavior, whether you are reading a paper résumé or browsing a candidate’s LinkedIn profile. And all sorts of employment laws—and even Sarbanes-Oxley—apply to the way you identify and source talented people online.
It’s easy to keep digging online, following links, and you’re practically guaranteed to encounter bits of information and gossip that candidates would prefer potential employers not see. So what do you do when you come across information online that reveals potentially private and protected information? Steckerl is clear: Disregard it. “Your responsibility is to find the most qualified people to fill jobs for your company,” he explains. “Despite what you think, you weren’t hired to be the culture police or make a citizen’s arrest because of something you saw on Facebook or Twitter.”
Steckerl also advises to think twice before you consider information that has nothing to do with the job for which you’re hiring—whether it’s found online or not. Something as simple as stumbling upon the reason why a candidate quit a previous job could reveal sensitive information that violates a host of worker-protection laws. And what about discovering that an older worker, out of work for an extended period of time, accepted a significant pay cut at his previous job? “If a 50-year-old white guy is laid off and takes a lower-paying job to pay his mortgage and feed his family, why is that important? If you’re doing HR properly, the job pays what the job pays.”
When you find information that could be concerning or put the company at risk, Steckerl advises you not to play cop, judge, or jury. Seek help from the appropriate internal resources, be it in-house counsel or the risk-management department.
Then there’s the issue of passive candidates—those working elsewhere and who haven’t actually applied for a job with you. Executive leaders are hot-to-trot for such individuals, who aren’t jaded, cynical, and looking for a way out of a bad situation, but I wonder whether it is ethical to closely scrutinize someone who shows no indication of being unhappy with her job or interested in a role within your organization.
Jackye Clayton, the founder of talent consulting firm Pursuitology, believes that everyone is a passive candidate waiting to be contacted, and that most social-media information is fair game. “If you’re out there on the Internet, your information will be used by recruiters, sourcers, and researchers. People already know that—to an extent.”
I am not sure that people do know that. Most global recruiting processes are shrouded in secrecy. The candidate experience feels like a black hole of nothingness, where recruiters and hiring managers make all kinds of obscure, quick decisions on the appropriateness of candidates based on unscientific principles such as likability and culture. I asked Clayton whether executive leaders and HR professionals are obligated to inform people about how they are being evaluated and reviewed for job opportunities they may not know exist in the marketplace. Clayton acknowledged certain obligations under the Fair Credit Reporting Act but seemed unfazed when we discussed Googling a candidate. She explains, “Social-networking platforms have an obligation to tell people how to use the privacy settings, but there’s no additional obligation on behalf of an employer to educate and inform.”
Clayton adds, “One day, there will be a president who did a keg stand that was captured on Facebook. Companies will get over it. People’s sensibilities will adjust.”
Ben Gotkin, principal consultant at Recruiting Toolbox, would neither confirm nor deny that he has done a keg stand, but he generally agrees with Clayton. “Recruiters and sourcers are paid to identify the best possible candidates who might be interested in considering your opportunity,” he says. “Anyone can apply for a job that is posted out there, but it doesn’t always mean the relevant, best candidate for the opportunity will see it. Sometimes talented people need to be found.”
When I asked Gotkin if he was concerned about violating the privacy rights of someone who may not want to be found, he said, “No. Such concerns are probably overstated. People went to the library and used corporate directories to find employees for years. The benefits of scouring public information on the Internet and sourcing for top talent can outweigh the risks. Companies that do it themselves can save millions of dollars in search fees.”
I agree that corporate recruiters who connect top performers to amazing opportunities are important to an organization, but in the new age of unregulated Internet use, am I right to worry about the fine line between sourcing and stalking a candidate?
“Any recruiter or company executive who misuses personal information is breaking the law,” Gotkin says.
What about a company that uses deep Internet sourcing to enhance diversity recruiting initiatives? In the past twenty years, organizations have been compelled to think about the hiring process in a new and more strategic way. The best recruiting teams have developed relationships with universities and created positive affiliations with professional associations. Could sourcing for candidates straight from the Internet—and using search strings based on superficial qualities such as geography, name, and race-based professional affiliations—undo the good work of the past two decades? Does technology enable companies to go out to the world and say, “Black Electrical Engineer Wanted. Apply Within” without actually saying it?
Yes and no. While racial, gender, and age discrimination may happen on social-networking sites, the employers who discriminate—and search for one type of candidate—would probably do so with or without technology. That said, “Facebook discrimination is not happening as often as you think,” advises Tim Sackett, president of staffing firm HRU Technical Resources.
While my HR brethren have full faith and confidence in the fairness of the law, I am still suspicious. Internet sourcing and recruiting may be here to stay, but I wonder how the American Civil Liberties Union and employment lawyers will look back on this period twenty years from now.
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