Why Googling Your Candidates Can Backfire

August 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM by William Clarke

Untitled_design-1.jpgWhat’s the first thing you do when a solid resume comes down the funnel? Plug the applicant’s name into your search engine of choice and see what pops up, right?

Recruiters often do it. So much so that it’s probably an automatic part of the hiring process: You search for a candidate’s name in Google (or another search engine), peruse their Twitter feed, read a Medium article they liked, or even look into a few op-eds they wrote for their college paper. You get the idea.    

There’s a world of online knowledge you can learn about candidates, including their age, their family, their favorite sports teams, and their membership with religious organizations. This information might quickly flit out your memory and you might not even remember that you know it, or it could immediately change the way you think about them, and that’s when you’ve got a problem.

You probably think you’re just doing due diligence, but depending on what you find out about a job candidate, you could be breaking the law. Here’s why.

Just because information is public doesn’t give you the right to know it

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from employment discrimination based on their race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. There are 12 kinds of discrimination recognized by the federal government, including age, disability, pregnancy, race, religion, sex/gender, and national origin – and employment discrimination includes, wait for it, recruitment and hiring.

That means that even the most basic of online research into a potential hire could get you into hot water. Innocuous Googling, Twitter browsing or other sleuthing can easily lead to you find out protected information about your candidate, and if that information has any bearing at all on any of ensuing decisions related to their employment, you’ve just broken the law and you could wind up getting sued for discrimination. Yes, really.

Unconscious bias is a widespread and potentially (very) destructive force

There’s one more major reason why recruiters should refrain from online deep dives into candidates: Unconscious bias. I know what you’re thinking: I’m not biased. But research has consistently proven that all people have unconscious biases.

See, unconscious biases are our brain’s attempt to better interpret the millions of data points it faces at any given time. They are essentially mental shortcuts. For instance, our brain might group things like snakes, spiders, and sharks into a category of “dangerous”, while sunlight, food, and water are “good.” Get the idea?

The problem is that our brains group everything and anyone, and it leads us to develop biases based on stereotypes. Maybe you had a negative interaction with someone at some point. Your brain might then decide people like that person are mean, untrustworthy or selfish. It’s one thing in our personal lives, but quite another when our biases begin to influence our work, how we treat people, who we hire, whether or not someone gets a raise. On the other hand, it can cause us to unfairly view some people positively or better than view others, giving them an implicit advantage.

So, the more you dig into a candidate’s life beyond what they’ve presented in their resume and cover letter, the greater the odds of you finding out information about them that trigger your biases, whether positive or negative. That’s why it’s crucial to have a structured evaluation process that is as objective and fair as possible. Digging around candidates online profiles may feel like it’s part of your job, but unless your looking at things explicitly relevant to their job performance (GitHub activity, professional blog posts, and so forth), it’s really just snooping.

Here are a few ways to stay on the right side of both the law and professional ethics during your hiring process.

How To Research Candidates Without Violating Their Rights

1. Hire a third party service to perform background checks and vet candidates. 
Find reputable companies with well-trained professionals who frequently work within your state (state laws vary and can be difficult to comply with for the untrained).

2. Create a dedicated (non-recruiting) role for performing background research.
This should be someone who is not involved in hiring decisions but is only tasked with performing the background checks into candidates. Their primary responsibility is to affirm professional information and check for any red flags, not to apprise you of a candidate’s political beliefs or marital status.

3. Create a standard background check process for every candidate. 
A standardized process will help avoid many issues and ensure that every candidate receives the same treatment, a core aspect of fairness. Always look at the same social networks or use the same background check methods. If there is evidence against a candidate, document what it is and why it’s a valid reason not to hire them. 

4. Hold off on searching through candidates' social media accounts until the end. 
Someone’s gender, marital status, and ethnicity is not relevant for screening applicants – and it’s illegal to consider that information at all when hiring. Thus, there’s more risk than reward when digging into a candidate’s online life early on. However, it is still important to know whether or not there is embarrassing information about a candidate out there that can damage you and your organization (like an insulting status update about a former boss, or risque, public images on their Twitter feed). Hold off on the social media screening until you’re about to hire someone, otherwise you may get yourself into hot water.  

5. Document your decisions. 
Every decision and aspect of your process should be documented. If someone is under qualified, wants a salary outside of budget range, or was unprepared for the interview, write that down. If it’s something online like a questionable tweet or blog post that could disappear at any moment, take screenshots. Not only does it help you learn from your process and ensure institutional memory, it also protects you against unwarranted lawsuits. 

Adopting these practices will keep you on the right side of professional ethics and the law. They also help reduce the impact of unconscious bias on your hiring decisions. Focusing on the information most relevant to a candidate’s ability to perform the job will also help you find the best candidates. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

We're actively working to reduce the impact of unconscious bias on our organization, and recently worked with Paradigm – a company dedicated to training teams on cultivating diverse, inclusive workplaces. Be sure to check them out!

Related Articles:
What Happens When You Standardize Your Interview Process 
Stop Performing Back Channel References Immediately 
Are You Job Descriptions Full Of Unconscious Biases? These Tools Can Tell You 


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