A Free Background Check For Every Applicant

Eight or nine years ago, when my dad managed a small branch of a hire car firm in Cyprus, he told me that they now did web-searches of any potential employees, as an extra screening process. It was a new but growing practice by employers at the time, but it’s become the norm now.

In education in 2013, where turning out employable graduates is a priority, it isn’t unusual to prompt an unsuspecting group of students to Google themselves, and watch the dawning horror on their faces as you explain to them how easy it is to find and identify them by their drunken photos and badly written, expletive and adolescence-fuelled digital shadow. Although the students have grown up with the internet, it’s hard not to notice that this is all still new territory, and few of us are entirely prepared for what the full implications and consequences of digitally “open” lives are.

In a market where thousands of people are applying for a steadily dwindling number of jobs, it’s not entirely surprising that employers are using the internet – and the by-default open nature of online life – as an Human Resources tool. And because that’s the way the world is now, we in education are absolutely right to warn students of online behaviours that may hamper their chance of getting very far in the working world.

The thing I’m wondering about today, though, is: Is it okay that employers do this?

(I’m trying not to look at this from the emotionally charged and subjective stance of an expectation for complete digital privacy for all. Privacy is a complicated and important area and one where my own feelings are conflicted: I understand why people may not want a digital shadow, but I allow my own to be pretty rampantly reflective of myself, and that’s the only way it really works for me. But I’m also super-conscious that that inner self isn’t one that you’re supposed to show your employers, or potential employers.)

I’m aware of the rationalisations behind it, and they make sense, as rationalisations, to the one person, stripped of accountability, with a dozen equal applicants for their post and trying to whittle down. But we don’t live in a world where that one person – or any person – in an organisation is supposed to operate without accountability. We have Human Resources departments built and equipped to protect a business/employer from its own staff, not least the ones that the business has given a little authority.

When it comes to recruitment, those departments have come up with a lot of checks and balances meant to protect staff – and potential staff – from discrimination by anyone working on behalf of the organisation, or more correctly to protect the organisation from accusations of discrimination. One of the places where this insulation is most noticeable is in recruitment… pretty much every application form one completes now comes with a separate form asking questions about gender, ethnicity and other details, which is there to separate information that might be cause for unfair discrimination from the application proper (at least I think that’s what it’s for, though it’s always seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me).

When the relevant parties see your application, and have to choose who is moving forward to the next stage, it is supposed to be stripped of anything that might allow the employer to prejudice against you on grounds of gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexuality.

(As I understand it this even goes as far as an employer not being allowed to let their personal experience of an applicant outside of the context of the current post prejudice their application to it, although how this is practically manageable when recruiting or promoting internally I don’t know.)

So bearing all this in mind, how is it okay for an employer to Google an applicant or look at their Facebook account and use information they see there, existing outside of a working context, to inform their decision about whether or not they will employ that person?

I’m not strictly talking about those cases, often reported in the media or shared in offices as hilarious cautionary tales with black-and-white causality, of hapless applicants writing criminal nonsense on their Twitter account, or Facebook galleries full of photos of them getting drunk and disorderly in University bars with their friends. However, these are worth addressing.

My stance on the former is: if the things they are writing are actually criminal, we already have a legal system that can penalise them quite effectively.

On the latter: yes, most places have some sort of public decency clause in their employment contracts, and employers want to protect themselves from “bad” public behaviour, but here we’re faced with the conflict between what is possible or not possible, and what is right or wrong… The “real world” analogue of Googling somebody – seeing what they’ve left out in the digital wild about themselves – is following them on the street – seeing what they do out in public or pseudo-public where anyone can see. Resources-wise, the social internet makes one a matter of a couple of minutes and a half-dozen easy searches, while the other is far more labour intensive, but the goal and result are pretty much the same.

If that analogue is right, can it be inferred that the reason companies don’t do this in meatspace, and didn’t do it before the social internet, is because it wasn’t practical, rather than because it’s actually a bit icky and outside the bounds of what an organisation should be doing?

All of which speaks to my larger point, but may just muddy the issue! What I’m asking, from a point of ignorance, is what the legal justifications and implications of this now accepted, common activity are? If the law accepts that the only thing that should be relevant to a job application is whether or not the candidate can perform the role – to the extent that the law requires that this separation of contexts is acknowledged as part of the recruitment process – how does this square against the potential employer subjecting the applicant to further scrutiny, and where and how is that logged?

Is it logged at all? And what criteria are used to measure what seem like pretty subjective factors? Is there a scoring system? Do the people using these methods get trained properly in how to interpret this disparate data? Or is it blunt instrument profiling? Can/should applicants request and receive a full report on what data was gathered about them, and which bits worked for or against them?

Are there policy or legal balances in place to protect against abuses of this distinctly modern practice? If an individual sees something in an applicant’s online life that they personally don’t like – sexual activity they don’t approve of, religious affiliation they find ridiculous, or even just evidence that someone gets silly after a glass of wine – are applicants protected from those prejudices the way they are meant to be from being excluded based on ethnicity or gender?

I freely admit I don’t know the whole story here. I only know that many employers admit to using web presence to disqualify applicants, not how exactly that process is managed. If anybody knows more detail, please enlighten me in the comments, or point me to places that might!

I still think we’re right to help students to navigate this very tricky territory, but when the culture changes insidiously like this, sneaking in like a textbook frog-boil, it’s always a good idea to scrutinise it. It may be a given that we’ve sacrificed a certain amount of privacy in the name of progress, but anything that might allow for prejudice or corruption to sneak back in at an organisational level is probably a bad thing.