Investigating Online Reputations
The report highlights a growing concern that there is not enough governance in place to keep organizations protected from possible claims of discrimination from applicants who have been turned down for jobs.
“Traditionally, recruiters have had clear restrictions on the types of information they can ask candidates,” the study states, including information about families, religion, politics, financial situation, medical condition and other issues.
“Now,” it states, “recruiters can easily and anonymously collect information that they would not be permitted to ask in an interview, and the survey found that recruiters are doing just that.”
Among the more surprising survey findings: 75 percent of U.S. recruiters say their companies have formal policies in place that require hiring personnel to research applicants online. That figure drops to 48 percent for U.K.-based hiring managers and 21 percent for both the German and French counterparts.
Jennifer Sandberg, a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, says she hasn’t had “anybody ever call me and say we are going to have a policy in place like that.”
While it doesn’t surprise her that HR checks social-networking sites, she found it unusual that 75 percent of companies have a policy that says they
Lisa Harpe, a senior consultant and industrial psychologist at Raleigh, N.C.-based Peopleclick Authoria Research Institute, calls the study “fascinating.” She says one reason the online-search policy figure is so low across the pond may be because of the large number of European privacy protections that are already in place.
“In Europe, there are so many more data-privacy issues, it makes employers want to say, ‘We’re not even going to touch that,’ ” she says.
Harpe was also surprised to see that, when 1,345 consumers from those same countries were asked, only 7 percent of the U.S. consumers surveyed said they believe information about them online could affect their job prospects, compared to 14 percent of all the consumers surveyed.
“[Consumers] are not getting the fact that hiring managers are looking at what they’re posting,” she says. “But at the same time, if you asked consumers if they would check online reputations of candidates if they were the hiring managers, they’d probably say they would do the same thing.”
Patrice Rice, founder of Dunkirk, Md.-based recruiting firm Patrice & Associates, says U.S. consumers are just not as aware of privacy concerns as citizens of other countries.
“U.S. citizens are very free in publishing information about themselves that can be perceived as negative,” she says. “For example, placing inappropriate photos on a Facebook page that potential employers could access.
“U.S. citizens don’t have as much of a sense of privacy or concern for who delves into their private lives,” she says. “That information is freely available for all to browse, so U.S. organizations take advantage of that lack of concern among U.S. citizens.”
Harpe says that, as consumers encounter more and more hardships in getting a job because of what’s online about them, they will better understand the connection.
And hiring managers have not been shy about sharing that connection. The study finds that 86 percent of U.S. hiring managers have informed candidates they have been rejected due to what’s been found online about them.
Candidates around the world are starting to get that message, as eight in 10 of the 1,106 worldwide consumers surveyed say they take at least some steps to keep their professional and personal profiles separate, including keeping profiles anonymous, restricting access to personal sites and refraining from publicly sharing which sites they use.
But the question of who is responsible for protecting their online reputation shows that there is still a gray area between hiring managers and candidates: While 62 percent of hiring managers say it is the responsibility of the user to protect his or her own reputation and not rely on the Web site to do it, only 48 percent of U.S. consumers feel the same way.
Harpe, who recently published an e-book states, male recruiters (86 percent) are more likely than female recruiters (61 percent) to look online for reputational information of applicants.
“There’s a definite gender discrepancy there, and I’d like to see some more research on that,” she says, adding that “this is just one survey, and if you do another you might not find as big a discrepancy.”
She says one possible reason for the discrepancy could be that men and women view social networks differently.
“There’s some information out there that females actually use social networks for social networking [for personal relationships] much more than men do,” she says. “Women aren’t using it to post job-related information like men may be doing.”
Women, according to the study, are also more likely than men to consistently consider their online reputations when editing or posting content online; 39 percent of U.S. men and 54 percent of U.S. women responded positively to that question.
Such gender discrepancies in the survey bring up an intriguing notion for Harpe.
“If you have a female recruiter, then you might get judged on different criteria than a male recruiter,” she says.
She adds that, regardless of the gender of the hiring manager or recruiter, caution must always be used when researching a candidate’s online reputation.
“If you look at a person’s ‘profile’ section on Facebook, it’s almost entirely a list of questions that should not be asked during an interview,” she says. “Companies really need to be careful about who’s doing the searching and how that information is being used.”
If companies are going to use social-networking sites in the candidate selection process, she says, they should designate one person, or a small group, to do the searching who will pass any relevant information along to recruiters.
“[That group] can see the race and gender information, but the hiring manager won’t,” she says. “They would just screen for job-related information and that’s it. … Having formal policies [on the use of social networks] in place is great, but you have to ensure that it’s being used in a non-discriminatory manner.”
While technology allows for gathering more information, Sandberg says, HR leaders must ensure hiring managers and recruiters understand that the same laws against discrimination in the workplace govern conduct in cyberspace.
“All the existing laws apply,” she says. “Getting caught might seem less likely, but I’m not sure it is.”
It’s just a matter of time before job applicants begin to file lawsuits claiming they were unfairly discriminated against because of what a prospective employer saw online, Sandberg says.
“It’s the beginning of a trend,” she says. “This is just the next step, the next technology. The rules are there. … We just have new technology to make it seem as if there’s a new way to violate the law.
“Anything you do with [a workplace computer] is ultimately discoverable [in a court of law] and we might learn exactly what you saw online and the applicant can charge discrimination. The same framework is there, and the company better have a legitimate business reason to explain why the candidate was not the best in their opinion.”