Weekly Wrap: Background Checks and the Social Media Job Hurdle

© Marina Zlochin - Fotolia.com
© Marina Zlochin - Fotolia.com

Here’s one thing about social media that too many people don’t seem to understand: the more public and open you are in the social media world, the more baggage you create that’s hard to get away from.

Way back at the dawn of the office computer era, when I was young and had a job training my fellow newspaper colleagues on the ins and outs of electronic publishing, I always told my trainees that they should be careful what they wrote on their new computers because whatever they wrote, the person they most wanted NOT to see it probably would.

Not much has changed in that regard now that we’re deeply engaged in social media, and a New York Times story this week (Social Media History Becomes a New Job Hurdle) makes this point again — as if we needed more reminding. It said:

Companies have long used criminal background checks, credit reports and even searches on Google and LinkedIn to probe the previous lives of prospective employees. Now, some companies are requiring job candidates to also pass a social media background check.

A year-old start-up, Social Intelligence, scrapes the Internet for everything prospective employees may have said or done online in the past seven years.

Then it assembles a dossier with examples of professional honors and charitable work, along with negative information that meets specific criteria: online evidence of racist remarks; references to drugs; sexually explicit photos, text messages or videos; flagrant displays of weapons or bombs and clearly identifiable violent activity.

“We are not detectives,” said Max Drucker, chief executive of the company, which is based in Santa Barbara, Calif. “All we assemble is what is publicly available on the Internet today.”

The story goes on to give examples of candidates who were turned down for jobs because of publicly-available details about their lives that were found in that Internet scraping for details.

People get hired, or not, for lots of different reasons

But that’s not what jumped out at me. What struck me was the notion that this kind of digging for dirt in the background of job candidates is somehow a new phenomena spawned by social media. It’s not, of course; it’s just that all that public information has made the search for background info all that much easier — and a lot more ubiquitous.

People get hired — or not hired — for all sorts of reasons, and social media has just expanded the number of reasons.

My friend Laurie Ruettimann at The Cynical Girl blog made that point this week when she wrote:

There are myriad reasons why people get hired. We often choose the prettiest, tallest, whitest, most masculine, most boobalicious, most feminine candidate for the role. (And sometimes those people are the most qualified, too.) We claim that the hiring process is scientific, but in most cases, managers make decisions based on their gut.”

The New York Times story also got into the legal and EEOC issues that crop up when you do online background checks, but most HR pros and others involved in the hiring process pretty much know about all of that. The question I always have is this: how much of what a person does in their private life really matters when they’re on the job? Is the trick to dig as deep as possible until we find dirt on somebody, or, is it to work to find the best possible candidate?

“We are living in a world where you have an amazing amount of information and data on every (person),” Ann Blinkhorn, an executive recruiter in the converging technology, media and communications industry, told the Times. “I think that puts the burden on the recruiter and the hiring manager to be really thoughtful about what is important and not important when making the hiring decision.”

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Yes, that’s the real question — what is important in the hiring decision, and what is not? I’m not sure all the background searching in the world can ever really answer that question.

HR job posting: Old-school candidates need not apply

Of course, there’s more than background checking in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • An HR job posting for our 2011 world. My pal Kris Dunn over at the Fistful of Talent blog has a really interesting post about a job ad Netflix just posted for a new HR Director. You really need to read it to appreciate it, but one thing is for sure — old school, traditional HR types need not apply.
  • What happens when Asian-Americans hit the “bamboo ceiling?” Interesting stories sometimes come from interesting places, and that’s why this one in the Kansas City Star about Asian-Americans hitting the “bamboo ceiling” with top management posts was intriguing. “A national study released today by the Center for Work-Life Policy says that Asian-Americans — 5 percent of the U.S. population and the nation’s fastest-growing minority by percentage — hold less than 2 percent of top corporate jobs,” the newspaper wrote. “The Asian culture is that you work hard on your own, and the belief is that you’ll be recognized based on your work,” said Joel Ma, who was born in Hong Kong and now works in global procurement at Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards Inc. “But western culture is more about whether you’re assertive enough.”
  • Workplace immigration audits are increasing. The federal government has stepped up the number of employer audits of workplaces, with predictable results, according to The New York Times. “While the administration of George W. Bush focused on headline-making raids that resulted in arrests of immigrant workers,” the newspaper reports, “the Obama administration has gone after employers with ICE’s I-9 audits on the theory that employers who hire unauthorized workers create the demand that drives most illegal immigration.”
  • Horrible bosses not just a movie plot. There’s a lot of focus on Horrible Bosses” this summer given the movie release, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had some fun with a list of the worst movie bosses. But as Jon Stewart pointed out this week in the video below, sometimes “Horrible Bosses” are a real-life problem.




John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.