We saw this candidate’s Instagram account and this person is always travelling. So, how can you say that this person will work hard?” Founder Vikram Ahuja of Talent500, which enables global companies to set up remote teams, was recently privy to this conversation with a recruiter about a potential hire. While this is an extreme instance of how your social media presence can be perceived by a prospective employer, it’s an example of why you may want to hold off on tweeting your impassioned and radical views on a politically charged topic. Chances are it could cost you your future job. Recruiters and hiring managers are not just stop - ping by your digital avatars to cross-check factual information but also to size up whether you are a match culturally for the organisation; in some cases they are rejecting the candidate based on what they find online.
A 2020 poll among 1,005 hiring decision-makers by US-based staffing solutions firm Express Employment Professionals found 67 per cent respondents saying they use social networking sites to research potential job candidates. A 2018 CareerBuilder survey carried out in the US found the number to be at 70 per cent. While a similar study could not be found in India, several recruiters and experts in the field admit they do pick up on the digital breadcrumbs left behind by jobseekers. Those, along with their résumé, interviews, psychometric tests, panel discussions and other assessment tools are used to make hiring decisions.
Pooja B. Luthra, Group Chief HR Officer of Trident Group, who has also run her own HR consultancy firm, says it is common these days for most organisations to go for “social media screening” of candidates. “Many of them are even rejecting candidates based on what they find on social media,” she says. APAC President Manish Sinha of background verification company Sterling RISQ, which also conducts social media screening, says, “It is a very natural extension of the normal screening any company would do. You would typically check two aspects of a profile—minimum standards such as criminal history, education, employment background, as well as alignment with corporate culture.” He says many of his top high-volume clients are in India across telecom, media, insurance, consumer banking, staffing firms, accounting and audit firms. Power and gas, private equity and technology firms are also big on social media screening, he adds.
Better safe than sorry
For organisations, social media screening is a way to identify red flags and sidestep any potential bombs waiting to detonate because recruitment is expensive as is brand damage. And the latter is often difficult to undo, especially with almost instant social media amplification. “When an unflattering news article comes out about a person, the organisation’s name also gets dragged in. That tells people the organisation doesn’t have control over the talent it hires. It’s such a difficult thing to manage if you are employing 30,000-40,000 people,” says recruitment firm Randstad India’s Chief People Officer Anjali Raghuvanshi. Trident’s Luthra says you don’t want to feel foolish later on for missing obvious behaviour clues the person had left in the public domain. “Earlier we used to do reference checks by calling up people. Now the person is offering that information. So why not?” That’s why it is not restricted to industries requiring digital skillsets. “Obviously, I don’t expect a regional sales person for a pharmaceutical firm to have social media skills. But I’m looking for a certain personality profile—leadership ability, interests and ambition,” says Aditya Mishra, Director and CEO, CIEL HR Services. Their LinkedIn posts and network serve as a window into who they are, he adds.
LinkedIn and Twitter are the usual suspects when it comes to the sites looked at, agree recruiters. But Facebook and Instagram are not entirely ruled out. Sterling also looks at Pinterest, YouTube and news sources. Still others prefer peeking into software development platform GitHub, question-and-answer website Quora and corporate community knowledge base CiteHR as well to glean domain-related insights about the candidates. But all experts say they only look at publicly available information. However, they also agree that many organisations do resort to probing into private profiles and data scraping without consent.
Depending on the seniority of the role, the hiring manager and the organisation, the checking varies from a cursory glance at the websites to a full-blown analysis. Sterling, which uses technology, applies filters or keywords like drugs, misogynistic and violence, that throws up problematic content by the person, if any. Used in various combinations and across volumes of data available online, says Sterling’s Sinha, it becomes impossible to do just a manual check. “It has to first be done by a machine and then summarised for a human eye to look at.”
The process assumes more significance for senior management and strategic positions where a hiring misstep works out to be a lot costlier. “If I do a wrong CEO hire, I could be bringing down the P&L and dragging down share prices a couple of notches. So, the impact is much higher,” says Sushant Dwivedy, MD (India and the Philippines) at talent screening firm SHL. The digging can go back as far as seven years, which Sterling considers the gold standard in any kind of data analysis. Luthra prefers breadth over depth, going back only a year across activities, giving candidates the benefit that they may have changed over the years. But it’s not always done with the intention of digging up dirt. “It’s like getting an insurance policy. You would hope you don’t need it but in the event that you do, you just feel terrible to not have done it,” says Sinha. The information gathered can also serve as conversation starters during the interview, sometimes to seek clarification on concerning posts. “If they posted or commented about something, I will just pick that up in the interview I will have with them,” says Dwivedy. At other times, it comes in handy to understand the candidate beyond their CV. “If he likes music, it gives me a new dimension about him although it is not required for the job… Post-joining dissonance is lesser if I get to know the candidate better,” says CIEL’s Mishra.
Hiring decisions, however, don’t entirely hinge on social media presence. K. Sudarshan, Regional Managing Partner (Asia) and MD of EMA Partners India, says it is premature to assess the cultural fitment of a candidate based just on what they have posted online. Recruiters accord it varying degrees of importance, but only in conjunction with other more objective assessment tools. But the findings, if serious enough, can prove to be deal-breakers. “He could be a great guy, but he is not the guy for us,” says Luthra, adding that she has rejected candidates on the basis of their social media posts.
Red flags and rejection
Luthra and Sinha both agree that it doesn’t happen often, though. Overtly political/religious/militant views on social media sites are among the top offences in the eyes of recruiters. “As an organisation, we want to come across as being politically neutral because the company has to thrive no matter who is in power,” says Randstad India’s Raghuvanshi. Abusive language, bigotry and hate speech, sexism, misogyny, inappropriate sexual behaviour including gestures, alcohol or drug abuse, bad-mouthing previous/current employer or fellow em ployees in the form of photos or text can all drive away potential recruiters from your profile, they say. But you may want to press pause on plans of scrubbing away all your evidence from the cyberworld. Having no digital footprint is a red flag on its own, too. The Express Employment survey found that among those using social networking to research candidates, more than half (55 per cent) found content that caused them not to hire the applicant. But 21 per cent said they are not likely to consider a candidate who doesn’t have an online presence.
But you may want to press pause on plans of scrubbing away all your evidence from the cyberworld. Having no digital footprint is a red flag on its own, too. The Express Employment survey found that among those using social networking to research candidates, more than half (55 per cent) found content that caused them not to hire the applicant. But 21 per cent said they are not likely to consider a candidate who doesn’t have an online presence.
“They may not be active on social media, but they have a profile, a few friends, some likes, etc. If they don’t, that scares me a little bit about where this person is coming from,” says Luthra. Sudarshan points out that it is no longer a matter of pride to say you are not available on social media. “If you’re a CXO and say that, it’s a cause for concern actually,” he says. CIEL’s Mishra says that he looks for work-related posts. “The fact is working people spend 60 per cent of their active life in employment. If you have never been able to talk about it in your social circles, then it’s something to really think about.” The way to go about it, the experts say, is to have a positive social media presence.
Biases and privacy
But there are pitfalls for recruiters, too. Biases creep in against the candidate even before they appear for an interview. “It is highly subjective and the system is already riddled with a lot of biases,” says Talent500’s Ahuja, who cautions recruiters against social media screening for cultural fitment. Agrees Luthra, adding that the sooner you do it in the process without meeting the person, the likelihood of you not forwarding a candidature because of your bias is much higher than spotting a serious red flag. She prefers checking social media only when she sees merit in taking the candidature forward. Sterling, Sinha says, conducts checks only after the employee has accepted the offer and consented to background verification and social media screening. “At the interview stage, there is no explicit permission or implied clearance,” he says. Arun S. Prabhu, Partner and Head of Technology, Media, Telecommunications practice at law firm Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, says it is not illegal when carried out with informed consent, which is what most reputed organisations do. Even if the consent form doesn’t explicitly say so, as long as the information is not in a private profile, it can be argued that the information which was made publicly available by the candidate can be reviewed, he says. “But there are people who do this is in a more intrusive way by checking private profiles or pages, or looking at material which, in its context, was shared with a reasonable expectation of privacy. This is a much greyer area.”
As Luthra points out, it takes just one candidate to get irked by what you know about them and it will be all over social media. “That’s the end of it.”
It goes back to how Ahuja handled the situation with the recruiter who had a problem with the Instagram account of a prospective employee. “We had to escalate it and say, ‘You cannot bring these biases when you are recruiting someone’.”
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