Communication Currents

How “Googling” Changes Personnel Selection

December 1, 2014
Organizational Communication

The first place most people go when they want information is online, whether they want to learn more about an upcoming date, potential roommate, future employer, prospective employee, or are just curious about what someone is doing. Yet, such “googling”—or cybervetting—can have profound consequences on our relationships, including our employment. When employers cybervet prospective employees, it can change how they decide what counts as a good fit and consequently who gets the job.

Finding the right fit matters to employers. Hiring the right person promises to boost competitive advantage, increase productivity, mitigate risk, and make the workplace more enjoyable. How employers determine who is the right fit also matters to job applicants. Our study examined why employers cybervet and how they report using information gathered from social media, search engines, and other online tools to supplement the hiring process.

Traditionally, employers used information from applications, résumés, and interviews to get information from the applicant when making hiring decisions. Employers also called references and former employers to double-check applicant information—seeing if they missed any “red flags” or data that raised questions about applicants.

Although employers continue to use résumés, cover letters, and interviews, they find applicant-provided information increasingly difficult to trust in an age of self-branding. At the same time, references and former employers conventionally used to check the authenticity of applicant claims are not as easily or consistently available: Given growing fears of libel claims, former employers often refuse to provide anything more than dates of employment, and references often provide only positive comments. This leaves employers in a bind. As they try to make sense of whom to hire, they question key sources of information that previously had helped them double-check whether applicants’ claims were accurate, exaggerated, or deceptive.

Enter the Internet. As the use of new and emerging social media continues to grow, the Internet offers an available information source many employers consider a viable alternative for double-checking applicant claims. The use of cybervetting to supplement personnel selection continues despite questions about whether the practice is legal, ethical, or effective. Even as many people believe cybervetting is a relatively harmless process designed to uncover major impropriety and is quite normal, they may not realize that by providing greater access to applicant information—including information about non-work lives—cybervetting changes personnel selection.

To examine how cybervetting might alter what counts as a good fit, we interviewed 45 people involved in hiring. We talked to a diverse set of human resource directors and managers, lawyers, executives, recruiters, and others across various industries to ask them how they go about deciding who is, and is not, considered a good fit.

Findings from our interviews suggested that employers had different and multiple reasons for cybervetting. Certainly employers were interested in risk and reputation management. They wanted to avoid “red flags” and anything about a prospective employee “that might negatively represent” the organization or its brand. They also reported how the details they unearthed online were “fun” or helped “satisfy their curiosity.” Yet what made cybervetting different from other aspects of conventional personnel selection was that many employers believed that the Internet could reveal the “360-degree, 24-hour-a-day” person.

This means many of these employers considered all available digital information relevant for assessing an applicant’s fit. Many reported piecing together digital information to “get a sense” of a person and to double-check information from résumés and interviews where applicants were putting “their best foot forward.” Thus, digital traces from an applicant’s 14-year-old self, attendance at various social or political events, and other information about the applicant (or someone with the same name) all might become part of the quickly constructed composite employers create and believe reveals the “authentic” applicant. Besides the potential for illegal discrimination, the vast array of online information provides much more than what many would consider relevant for employment.

Some employers reported real tensions between adhering to existing professional guidelines while also finding ways to manage uncertainties of personnel selection and the belief that “the Internet is the way the world is going.” Some assumed they could disregard irrelevant and illegal information—despite research indicating otherwise. Others assumed applicants who are foolish enough not to use, or to trust, privacy settings legitimately should be disqualified. Overall, employers tended to assume applicants have control over others who contribute to their online presence and over the impressions others, including employers, make about their online information.

What is clear is that cybervetting, as described by these employers, involves extending fit assessments into non-work roles and contexts. Given risk and reputation management concerns and the inadequacy of conventional information sources, it is not surprising employers would be tempted to go online despite employment and privacy laws that have historically protected against such information use.

We argue the issue goes deeper. People do a lot of things online—make friends, join support groups, pursue hobbies, support political candidates, try on different identities and ideas, and reach out to loved ones far away. By extending information used in fit assessments to varied work and non-work contexts online (not just professional sites like LinkedIn™), employers might feel greater certainty, even as they ironically gain less insight into applicants’ employability and violate hiring expectations. As workers increasingly manage online information and reputations, they likely will undermine employers’ stated goals to access applicants’ informal, unbiased, spontaneous, “authentic” characteristics—weakening the value of online information for double-checking applicant claims while deepening employer-employee distrust and compromising the diverse roles and interests the Internet allows. Indeed, when some of our interviewees imagined themselves as workers rather than employers, they expressed greater concern about long-term and potentially negative implications of cybervetting on society.

So what should we do? Given the pressures employers face, practical solutions need to consider tendencies to find answers online as well as problems with interpretation and evaluation. First, those involved in hiring need to develop more complex understandings of how communication and technologies work. Training for anyone involved in hiring needs to stress that information is often incomplete. It also needs to highlight that how people and technologies communicate, organize, and construct digital traces alters evaluations—even when employers attempt to disregard irrelevant information. Organizations might consider solutions like social media background checks, such as those offered by Social Intelligence Corporation, that look for digital “red flags.” Such solutions hide legally protected and irrelevant information, and in the United States also require due process for applicants denied employment based on such checks.

Refining professional standards and encouraging people to internalize those standards also offer opportunities for intervention. This is particularly the case if we can encourage careful consideration of what counts as relevant information for assessing employment fit and for creating the kind of organization and society we desire. Such decisions—if clearly communicated—are likely to enhance an organization’s desirability among applicants who wish to keep work and non-work life separate. Thinking about the way information is communicated and constructed also could benefit policymakers interested in creating employment protections that better address the complexities associated with digital information use and privacy.

About the author (s)

Brenda L. Berkelaar

University of Texas at Austin

Assistant Professor

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Purdue University

Distinguished Professor