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Meet the Big Brother Screening Your Social Media for Employers

Big Brother

Turn off your Twitter feed. Hide your Flickr photos. Remove your YouTube videos. And change your Facebook privacy settings (if you can figure out how).

With unemployment rates flying high, jobs are scarcer than ever, and applicants need every leg up they can get. What's one overlooked way of improving your chances of getting hired, after rewriting your cover letter or buying a new suit? Stop using social media.

Today, employers are no longer just searching Google for information on applicants—they're commissioning companies to do professional social media background checks. Posted some foul-mouthed tweets? Got pictures of yourself downing a beer bong in college? They may hurt your chances. Some 8% of companies have already fired social media miscreants.

Santa Barbara-based Social Intelligence Corp. is just one of the many companies that specializes in social media background checks of potential employees and active monitoring of existing employees. SIC scans the Internet for racy online activity and provocative photos unbecoming of an ideal job candidate. These new hiring standards are turning the job application process upside-down.

"I personally think we're moving away from the one-page résumé," explains CEO Max Drucker. "I think we're moving toward where your online history is your résumé."

Drucker says SIC only screens for user-generated "objectionable behavior" online, and that standards vary based on employer. Editors of High Times might be more lenient than, say, the HR department of the Wall Street Journal. The majority of the time, SIC takes screenshots of behavior that falls into the category of "poor judgment." These screenshots are then shown to employers for review. Does it typically ruin the chances for a new hire? "Yes," says Drucker. "The more risk-averse employers won't even look at the pictures."

Given the breadth of Google, it's a scary thought that our identities and character may soon be judged based on scraps of information collected online—there's no question it feels like an invasion of privacy. But not to Drucker, at least legally speaking. SIC only collects user-generated content (no third-party or hearsay data posted in obscure forums), and redacts any information that would violate federal law.

"Look, this is information that's in the public domain," he says. "We're not making fake friend requests, we're not being sneaky. We're simply taking information in the public domain, and structuring it in a fashion that's legal and relevant for the hiring process."

Social media has been a headache for employers. Though it may provide some insight into an applicant's history, it is just as likely to be taken out of context. Your behavior at home is obviously different from how you conduct yourself at work. Even online, many of us reserve different behaviors for different networks—we might be more professional on LinkedIn, more snarky on Twitter, and more open on Facebook.

Regardless, having no trace of information online means nothing about your character—it just means you are better at covering your tracks. Drucker admits that having no social media presence is a kind of leg-up, and points out that some companies now specialize in ensuring your privacy.

However, not everything SIC does is aimed at crushing the hopes of job applicants. Drucker says the company also reports any positive character traits: LinkedIn contacts and recommendations, industry expertise from blogs, or charitable work shown in photographs. So, if you want to get hired by Apple, say, it wouldn't hurt to create a Tumblr blog about your love for iPads, post some pictures of you handing out iPods at a soup kitchen, and arbitrarily inflate your LinkedIn popularity by friending anybody and everybody.

Drucker defends his job by comparing to that of the highway patrol. "People by-and-large stay within the speed limit because they know there is someone consequences if they get caught," he says. "Look, the employer is damned if they do, and damned if they don't. If they do the screening themselves, it's a legal landmine. If they don't, they open themselves up to negligent hiring."

But do we really want to live our lives under the constant watch of a highway patrol officer? That's a rather Orwellian future. Would Drucker even want to live in that world? Has he himself gone through this process? "Well no, I'm CEO," he says, chuckling. "I created the company!"

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  • Mark

    It's very hard to be sympathetic to employees under these circumstances. I never post under my name unless it is for business and then I am very careful indeed. I realize that even pseudonyms offer no real privacy, but unless one's prospective employer is the National Security Agency, I doubt most employers will look that deeply or care.

    As for the question "But do we really want to live our lives under the constant watch of a highway patrol officer?", all I can say is that the internet is not life. If you think it is, you have more serious problems than invasion of privacy. Seriously, grow up. There is a world out there that matters far more than this crap.

  • bill bo

    This works in reverse as well. Why would I want to work for an anally uptight company who makes a determination of of employability by media that could easily be taken out of context? Also, I have one life and I'll be damned if I have to live it in a manner that is agreeable to some unwritten corporate code of behavior 24/7. Only a lemming would find any value to working at a company who thinks this is a sound hiring practice.

    Thank God I work for myself.......

  • George Bush

    We had a job applicant the other day. I expected something was wrong from her resume (a job history of moving from employer to employer for 8 years without ever getting an increase in job responsibilities) but finding her MySpace page where she wrote, "I know I am a loser at work" was the nail in her coffin.

    Another job applicant didn't have the qualifications we sought but her nail in the coffin was how she was dressed and the fact that we could tell from the headshot on her resume that she was dressed similarly. Maybe where she came from this would be no problem but we are a professional company in a country where displaying pictures of oneself dressed that way shows one lacks the understanding of what is appropriate in this country and her lack of cultural awareness could be a problem in doing her job.

  • Sarah Maywalt

    "But do we really want to live our lives under the constant watch of a highway patrol officer?"

    It's not like that at all. No law is being broken. It is like a highway patrol officer arresting you for a DUI, because he had information that you had once drank to excess. This will calm down once employers realize that everyone has such information about them.

    My god, I'm a comedian in my off-time and a very edgy one at that. I have to promote myself, or I will never work as a comedian. Then again, by doing so, my employer could fire me unfairly for something that was not done or promoted at work.

    What do you do? Don't tread on me!

  • Richard Presley

    "But do we really want to live our lives under the constant watch of a highway patrol officer?"

    I live in Ohio. This is par for the course.

    However, the question that is really being begged is why would someone want to engage in behavior that puts you at risk if it were found out by your present or potential employer? Living in a family where one's diary or journal was only tacitly sacrosanct, I learned early on not to put anything in print (and later online) that I did not want everyone to see - because they probably would. OK, that and reading "Harriet The Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh taught me the consequences of uninhibited honesty that deeply hurt others even without intending to.

    The irony of that book is that it was the spy who became victim to her own success. I think that is instructive for today's corporations - if you take it all personally, pretty soon you won't have anyone working for you except sycophants and toadies. And yes, I am saying this as if it is a bad thing.

  • David Petherick

    Interesting, but little new here - just some good PR work from SIC.

    An article from my blog two years ago, September 2008:
    "More than one in five employers will screen your social media profiles before they decide on hiring you."


    Regards, David ;-)

  • Melissa Andersen

    This is a horrifying thought. There has always been an invisible line within people that differentiates "personal" from "business". If you don't have that line then that's sad. But I think it's horrible to judge people professionally based on what they do personally. If they can hold up both ends then they are a capable human being. If you bring your personal life to work then you are not capable and need to find a job where being "not capable" is acceptable.

  • Scott Byorum

    A time wasting cottage industry arising from a time wasting activity. Only in America!

  • CurtisMSP

    Avoiding an online presence to prevent having a bad reputation is kind of like avoiding people to prevent having enemies. It is not the online presence that is the problem, it is the image that you create for yourself online that is the problem. Since we were young we have been taught how to behave in public to create good relationships with others. It is about time we start using those same skills online. Instead of using the net as a place to regurgitate every inane detail about our lives, we should start using the net to nurture relationships and carefully shape a positive reputation for ourselves, just like we do face-to-face.

  • Dan Voell

    I worry about the quality of information summation by a company like this or are they just capturing information and passing it along? Can they decide that you aren't a good candidate because of a drug reference you made as a joke, do they understand sarcasm?

  • Rob Tyrrell

    I'd agree with Dan that a blank online presence isn't necessarily the best way to go. Most companies want to find some information on job candidates when they do a web search. The key is to make it a positive impression.

  • Proforma Screening Solutions

    Great article and very timely as we come across many employers who are curious about using social media to screen potential employees. Like other forms of employment background checks that involve the use of publicly-available information, using what you find in a social media search can bring significant rewards -- or a world of trouble. The key is balancing the risk with the reward. My company (a background screening company) covered this topic in a recent article on our employment screening blog:

  • Dan Fonseca

    This is a scary thought but its true! Applying for my current internship, I was very aware of how they would most likely check out my social media profiles. I cleaned up EVERYTHING. I do want to say that sometimes you want to be found. Not having a profile these days can be a little sketchy. Have an alias? Sometimes it may back fire on you. What do you have to hide from a company? Scary stuff huh?

    In the future we have to be careful of what we say. Not that we shouldn't be cautious of what we say ever, just now there is a record of it.