Privacy Advisor

PERSPECTIVE: Advocate or Adversary: Recruiting's Balancing Act

December 1, 2007

Advocate or Adversary: Recruiting's Balancing Act

Van Allen

The myriad issues facing employers working to fill a vacancy and the desires of a prospective employee seeking to find gainful employment rarely match perfectly. At the workplace, budget constraints, personality conflicts, equipment obsolescence, office politics and community shortfalls may give pause to a candidate perfectly suited for an empty position. Conversely, a seemingly qualified candidate may possess personality traits, a lack of specific experience, or personal interests that, in time, may strain relationships on the job.

The interview process may expose some of each party's deficiencies, but since self-interest naturally results in accentuation of the positive and an avoidance or minimization of the negative, the peculiarities that add up to a strained relationship — worker/workplace incompatibility — may not be fully understood during the interview process, and will only become manifest after a hire is made. For the candidate, maintaining personal privacy provides a hedge against bias based on the disclosure of potentially controversial information.

Traditionally, an employment recruiter has filled the role of mediator in this delicate balance. Earning the trust of both parties, and with a clearer understanding of both the positive and negative characteristics of each, a skilled and objective recruiter is in the ideal position to identify employer-candidate matches that are most likely to result in long-term success. Recent changes to the employment and recruiting landscape have introduced new complexity to the process, however. However, few employers, employees, or recruiters have noticed the change, much less given serious thought to their impact.

The emergence of online social networking utilities and the array of simple self publishing tools available to anyone with access to the Internet has resulted in a flood of personal information on the Web. Bloggers share their experiences, thoughts and feelings with the world; subscribers to social networking sites publish highly personal details and photos with friends (and the merely curious); and with just a few button pushes, ubiquitous camera phone paparazzi seem ever ready to capture and share their images with the world.

The problem for a new generation of workers completing an education and preparing to embark on a professional journey is that decisions made at the spur of an indiscriminate, carefree moment may not seem so wise with additional perspective. Chronicling an out-of-control spring break vacation and sharing with friends via the Internet during one's sophomore year could become a regrettable decision once a diploma is in hand. At one time these glitches of personal history were the near-exclusive bane of politicians and celebrities who used the term "youthful indiscretion" to explain away embarrassing decisions made before a career in public eye was a consideration. Depending on an individual's personal tolerance for shame, the term "youthful indiscretion" might describe anything from an unfortunate hair style or a matter of immoral — even criminal — activity. Fortunately for most people, memories of these youthful indiscretions are easily and conveniently suppressed, discussed only in quiet, trusted circles as a source of guilty amusement, and often preceded by the phrase, "Remember that time back in college when we… ." At least it was that way before the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of the social networking phenomenon. Today, the indelibility of digital history means that wild oats sown yesterday may well live on in perpetuity courtesy a page on MySpace, or via an image and narrative posted to a Web site, archived for rediscovery years later courtesy of a few keystrokes on Google or some other search engine. The well-publicized case of Miss New Jersey Amy Polumbo serves as a compelling case study of the very real potential for what can go wrong with social networking when personal privacy is compromised. Supposedly salacious photographs of Polumbo were used in an attempt to blackmail the beauty queen. The case made headlines, and even though the photos captured what amounted to little more than Polumbo engaged in silly hijinks, the implications were clear: Personal privacy in the age of online social networking has become a high-maintenance pursuit.

As more and more employers conduct background searches on prospective employees, and as the Internet becomes an increasingly important component of such checks, the reality is that potential employees and employers both need to be cognizant of the ways in which social networking can affect the candidate screening and decision-making process. Once hired, continued participation in online social networking also may have implications for both employee and employer. Poor judgment recorded on the Internet could be the difference between launching headlong into a promising new career, or settling for a position somewhat lower on the list because, for some reason, offers just weren't coming in from choice one (or two, three, four…).

Survey: Workers Want Online Privacy

According to a recent study by privacy and information management research firm Ponemon Institute, commissioned by national employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson, workers are growing increasingly aware of the potential workplace ramifications of their online activities. More than three quarters of younger workers (ages 18- 30) feel that a review of social networking Web pages by a potential employer would constitute a violation of their personal privacy, and 78 percent of all workers believe that an employer should not monitor social networking sites on which they are active. Blogging, even when unrelated to work, also was found to be an area of sensitivity among employees. Eighty-four percent of older workers (older than 50) and 71 percent of younger workers felt that being disciplined for blogs unrelated to their work would be an inappropriate violation of personal privacy.

What do these findings, and the legal rights and obligations of individuals and employers, mean within the context of the various healthcare professions, where the desire to minimize potentially high liability risks is strong? As a recruiter working with both physician candidates and healthcare employers, the potential presence of embarrassing online residue has introduced a nuance to the process of matching qualified candidates with organizations in need. These online influences hold true across the healthcare industry, applying to nursing and administration as well. The first and best advice I give to a candidate is to not put themselves in such a position in the first place. An instance of questionable judgment may well have a reasonable explanation, but it's best to not have to address such an issue at all. If there is something online that may require an answer, however, don't pretend it doesn't exist. In most cases it is unlikely that information available online will disqualify a candidate from a desired position, but it may be that a candidate profile derived from information harvested online could help in determining if one candidate is a better fit for an opportunity. Not long ago we were working to fill a vacancy for a Midwestern hospital in a conservative rural community. One candidate we had seemed like an ideal fit; she was anxious to pursue the position, but after conducting a simple background check — including a review of publicly available purchasing patterns on a popular retail Web site — we realized there were incompatibilities that might put the employer and employee at odds in the future. After discussing the situation the candidate agreed that, in spite of the position's appeal and her obvious qualifications, she would probably not be happy there. The experience for both parties underscored the advantages of having an objective advocate involved in the screening process.

Privacy Considerations in the Hiring Process

For employers, the vetting process is one that is relatively well-established, but there are guidelines to follow, especially when including the Internet in a screening. The first and most important thing to remember is that policies must be consistent and applied equally for all candidates. Even unintentional deviation from an established pattern can be construed as discriminatory or otherwise unfair. But more likely when screening potential employees is the potential for encountering inaccurate information associated with an individual.

Reporter Bob Sullivan, author of the Red Tape Chronicles on MSNBC.com, provided a stunning account of the potential for wildly erroneous data, including damaging criminal and financial information, in a May 3, 2007 report. Conducting a background check on himself, Sullivan found a number of false and potentially damaging associations.

"If you use the Internet today to conduct a background search on me, you might get the idea that I have been convicted of child molestation, and I have a close male relative who's been convicted of manslaughter," Sullivan wrote of the situation. "Let me assure you, neither is true. But let me try to convince you that there is a crisis at hand."

Once again, we encountered a situation illustrative of this pitfall. Representing an individual with a relatively common name, one hospital contacted us wondering why we would send them a candidate with a criminal record. Initially disappointed in ourselves for overlooking an obvious red flag, we dug deeper and found that our candidate was indeed clean, but another person with the same name and a similar professional background had committed the offenses. We presented the new information to the hospital and the candidate was able to continue with the process and land the position.

The message for both candidate and employer is clear: Whether engaging the Internet for business or pleasure, it is important to understand the potential for an unintended result. An awareness of both the short- and long-term implications is essential to avoid the broadcast of so-called youthful indiscretions, and of making a wrong decision based on wrong information.

Van Allen is President and Founder of TimeLine Recruiting, a physician recruitment firm in Columbia, Missouri, and a part of the Maxim Healthcare network. Visit TimeLine Recruiting at www.tlrec.com, or call 877.884.6354.