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What's Your Online Reputation?

Joan Jett may not have cared about her Bad Reputation, but job candidates who are active online need to be conscious managers of their personal brand.  Likewise, as recruiters are increasingly leveraging search and social media tools to source and screen candidates, they need to be careful to comply with existing EEOC guidelines related to candidate information.  Dr. Rainer Seitz of the Kronos Hiring Solutions Group offers the following thoughts on the topic of online reputation management for candidates and recruiters:

Have you ever “Googled” yourself? I was surprised to learn that there is indeed another Dr. Rainer Seitz in the world, although he is apparently an MD. I was not surprised to see my professional and teaching affiliations, as well as my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, all come up in the first ten “hits.” Digging a little further, there's some information about an online car club I belong to, and some references to layoff articles for which I was interviewed. After that things trail off for the most part. That's just fine with me, although I feel compelled to note that my life really is more interesting than Google would suggest, but I digress.

I wonder how many job candidates out there would be surprised to see how much of a footprint they have on the internet. There would probably be even greater surprise to learn that many recruiters and HR professionals are turning into sleuths and tracking down those very footprints to learn more about candidates applying for jobs with their organizations. A recent survey commissioned by Microsoft found that 86% of US hiring managers have informed candidates that information uncovered during an online search resulted in their disqualification from the selection process. What is perhaps more surprising is that organizations actually have policies in place that require online investigation of candidates. Seventy-five percent of US recruiters in the survey mentioned above acknowledged that their organizations have such a policy. So not only are hiring managers and recruiters admitting to the use of these tactics, their organizations are often requiring them to do so. While this may be news to many job candidates, awareness of the importance of a person's online “brand” is increasing. For example, Syracuse University has taken proactive steps to help their graduating seniors to manage their online reputations by purchasing six-month subscriptions with an internet service designed to do so.

As tempting as it may be for recruiters and hiring managers to execute a few mouse clicks to uncover information about job candidates, any information we learn about candidates may be the very information that employment laws prohibit us from asking about during the hiring process. We may learn about candidates' marital status or whether they have children. Information that we come across may reveal their financial status, or the existence of certain medical conditions. We may learn about their religious practices as a result of groups to which they belong. Photos that we come across online may reveal information about their ethnicity. While our intent may not be to factor this specific information into our hiring decisions, simply accessing it raises the question of whether we have taken it into consideration. The EEOC tends to operate under the assumption that if a hiring manager obtains certain information about a candidate, the intent is to utilize it in making the hiring decision. The rule of thumb offered by the EEOC is that “information obtained and requested through the pre-employment process should be limited to those essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job.”

Although investigating the online reputation of job candidates may reveal important information relevant to the hiring decision, the risks inherent in doing so may not be worth it. The most effective and legally-defensible selection systems have job-relatedness as their foundation. This usually starts with a job analysis to determine relevant knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics. Job analysis information is then used to identify appropriate selection criteria, such as minimum qualifications questions or pre-employment assessments. Once we venture outside the realm of job-relatedness, we very well may be treading in a legal mine field.

The sentiment among employment law attorneys seems to be that it is just a matter of time before we begin to see lawsuits from candidates who feel that they were discriminated against in the hiring process as a result of being investigated online. This is arguably one area in which employers should proceed very cautiously. Your best bet is to stick with information for which job-relatedness can clearly be shown. That may ultimately mean eliminating or at least significantly restricting the use of Google, Facebook, and other internet sources of candidate information in your hiring process.

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