Looking for trouble

by External06 Feb 2012

One of the hot buttons in policy making these days is whether employers can or should reference-check candidates by accessing their social media profiles – commonly LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Sadly, most of the debate on the topic is about the legal issues. What legislation might we be contravening? Privacy concerns, legal challenges, will they find out? How do we ‘friend’ a candidate, so that we can ‘build a comprehensive profile’ on them? Some employers just sidestep the legal risks by verbally encouraging their placement companies to do it for them – ethically, this is like the cosmetics companies buying their animal testing results from independent laboratories, so that they can claim not to test their products on animals themselves.

It appears that the practice is more widespread than most of us admit, and several employers now have policies which declare their intent to access social media. Setting aside the legal arguments for now, let’s rather look at the fundamentals of why we conduct references, and see whether social media snooping will help the employer make a selection decision.

In my view, I want to conduct a reference firstly to see that the CV and interview stories check out. Traditionally, many employers use specialist ‘verification’ companies to do the factual background checks which we think are necessary. Good thinking to confirm that they have the qualifications they say they have, and so on. To be fair, checking out their LinkedIn profile would possibly highlight discrepancies, but then wouldn’t a crooked candidate have falsified both their application CV and LinkedIn profile equally? A proper verification and previous employer reference is still necessary.

But surely the real reason for the reference check is to get evidence from previous employers which will substantiate whether the individual has demonstrated behaviours in the past which indicate that they match the competencies you are looking for. Does the candidate demonstrate the work-related experiences or potential which you will need in the person you hire?

So, if I am looking for a risk-taker, will a Facebook picture of the candidate bungee jumping prove how they will react at work? Do lots of party pictures mean that they have good interpersonal skills? Does having no profile picture lead you to deduce that they are shy in a business setting? I have worked with brilliant Actuaries who at work can mentally calculate numbers to six decimal points, but at home cannot remember their car registration number. So what! All I need to know is whether I have a person whose work behaviour in the past suggests (as well as such extrapolations are reliable) that they will be a good fit in this particular job with this particular employer. Why go out of your way to look for extraneous hints from their personal life, when it is the business context you should spend your time exploring? This is about as scientific as judging character from a handshake!

Alright – let’s give the other argument a hearing. Some people say that the list of a person’s social media friends should be checked against their quoted reference givers, just to see whether you are being given a genuinely objective referee’s name, or in fact an old mate. Fair point, but good reference-takers have for years been able to get past the ‘soft’ referees, and find out who the person’s boss really was. Many employers or search firms will seek out names of another former boss, colleague, subordinate, or even a client to get more objective views of the candidate. Surely you want to spend as much time as you have available by getting useful work information, rather than sitting on a social network site, trying to read the tea-leaves.

The point is that a good reference is not an FBI check to discover embarrassing secrets. The days of employers inviting the candidate and his (sic) wife to dinner, and then inferring work-related traits from his salt-pouring habits must surely be a thing of the past, one would hope. What would people infer about Richard Branson from his social behavior?

Is it not reasonable to accept that people at work are not necessarily the same as they are at home or on the sports field? That does not make them schizophrenic, just that we experience only one aspect to a person’s complex persona at work, and that’s OK. Surely, all we need to know is what that work persona is likely to be, based on consistent past evidence in a work context.

Most good HR people don’t even bother with written references, mostly because a quality reference is gained from well structured and probing interaction with the referee. Smart reference takers learn how to side-step the ‘we don’t give references’ company line, so why on earth would we even bother to read a ‘recommendation’ on LinkedIn? Where is the interaction and probing questions when you are pondering how the candidate’s like of Lady Gaga will affect their decision-making at work.  Sure, the social media might reveal some political, racist or sexist remarks which are cause for concern, but surely it must still be their ‘at-work’ proof of the pudding which is most reliable.

The final point which some social media advocates are making is worth considering; namely to share with the candidate any negative information you have discovered during your background-checking process, and allow them to comment. Of course, this applies to normal reference-checking too, but putting negative findings on the table is a very useful (although sensitive) process in evaluating ‘evidence’ before we judge its relevance. We will inevitably pick up negative elements, but sometimes it is from a biased source, or there is a context we do not understand. For example, most of us would avoid a candidate with a criminal record, but we think that Nelson Mandela is a hero despite 27 years in jail. The difference? Context.

Let’s think carefully before we assume cyber-sleuthing is the way to go. LOL


About the author
Gary Taylor has worked in HR for 25 years, in National Mutual of Australasia and Unilever, then as HR director at South Africa's largest health insurer Medscheme for 14 years, followed by three years at Wits University. Two years ago, he was appointed to start up HR for a new University in Saudi Arabia, where he is now director of the policy office