Employee profiling: what are the risks?

by Miklos Bolza27 Sep 2016
The boundaries between our public and private lives are being further blurred by the increased use of online profiling, one study has found.
 
However, the prevalence of this practice can lead to a number of small risks for employers especially with regards to how effective this sort of data gathering process can be.
 
Covert by nature
 
The research, conducted by Paula McDonald, Paul Thompson and Peter O'Connor of the Queensland University of Technology, examined the prevalence and general outcomes of profiling.
 
Although prior studies have found that up to 50% of all HR and recruitment personnel use profiling, only 6.9% of Australian employees reported knowing that they had been profiled while 29% said they had witnessed or heard about profiling occurring in their organisation.
 
“The differences between those figures suggest that profiling is a largely covert practice so the job applicants are rarely aware that they’re being profiled,” study author McDonald told HC.
 
Reasons for this secrecy is that online profiling gives employers much more evidence than could be gained from CVs, references or criminal background checks, she said.
 
“Potentially, they can gather quite a widespread range of information which employers often feel gives them a better sense of whether the job applicant is a good fit for the organisation or will be a productive employee in that particular role.”
 
Hidden risks
 
However, McDonald – who is also a professor of work and organisation at the QUT Business School – pointed to a few caveats to be aware of when using any kind of social or online profiling.
 
Firstly, as people become more aware of how to use privacy settings to protect their online profiles, this may affect the type of information available.
 
“We’re probably not likely to see a scaling back of profiling or attempts by employers to find information but if people are more aware of the risks, there might be less information for them to access,” she said.
 
Another issue stems from the way the information is interpreted and whether or not it actually affects the candidate’s ability to perform the available role.
 
One example McDonald gave was an employer who – on scanning a job applicant’s Facebook profile – found that all of his friends there were female.
 
“That raised a bit of a red flag for the employer. He didn’t really know what to do with that information but because he thought it was unusual, it cast an aspersion over the job applicant. There might have been a legitimate reason for that though and it was very unlikely to affect the extent to which they could do that job well,” she told HC.
 
Another issue which needed to be considered while online profiling was how easy it was for people with the same names to get mixed up.
 
“Also there might be a lot more information on some people than others. Some people may have an extensive online profile while others may have none at all. So how do you fairly compare the online information for those two people?”
 
McDonald noted that there needed to be more research done in this area especially since the QUT study only gathered information from employees.
 
“We know the kind of prevalence of the practice from an employer perspective,” she said. “But we don’t have a lot of information about the way they do this, eg the technologies used, whether there are any limits on the practice, whether anything is up for grabs, or even the kinds of occupational roles that might be targeted.”
 
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