The Face­book dilemma

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - — Bid­han “Bobby” Par­mar

As firms vet job prospects on­line, some drop ap­pli­cants af­ter a glimpse of their per­sonal lives. Is it eth­i­cal?

THE BIG IDEA: Is it eth­i­cal to base a hir­ing de­ci­sion on a job can­di­date’s Face­book page? THE SCE­NARIO: Mi­randa Shaw, a man­ager at a lead­ing con­sult­ing firm, is hir­ing for a se­nior an­a­lyst po­si­tion. She has nar­rowed the field to two can­di­dates, Rick Par­sons and Deb­o­rah Jones, and must make her rec­om­men­da­tion to the com­pany’s hu­man re­sources depart­ment im­me­di­ately. Both can­di­dates grad­u­ated from the same highly ranked busi­ness school that Shaw at­tended. Both boast ap­pro­pri­ate work back­grounds and shone in their in­ter­views.

How­ever, Par­sons is first in line for the job be­cause of his lead­er­ship skills, rep­u­ta­tion for tire­less en­ergy and great com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. Be­fore mak­ing her fi­nal de­ci­sion, Shaw de­cides to Google both can­di­dates.

A Mi­crosoft-spon­sored sur­vey from De­cem­ber 2009 found that 75 per­cent ofU.S. re­cruiters and hu­man re­sources pro­fes­sion­als say their bosses re­quire them to re­search job ap­pli­cants on­line. Seventy per­cent re­port they have re­jected can­di­dates af­ter such sleuthing.

Shaw’s ini­tial search re­vealed that Par­sons was in­volved in non­profit work and had won com­mu­nity ser­vice awards. She was im­pressed. But then she landed on his friend’s Face­book page.

In July 2010, Face­book’s founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Zucker­berg, an­nounced that Face­book had just en­rolled its 500 mil­lionth mem­ber. If it were a coun­try, Face­book would rank third in pop­u­la­tion— be­hind China and In­dia. Face­book’s users have shared 30 bil­lion pho­to­graphs.

“Peo­ple have re­ally got­ten com­fort­able not only shar­ing more in­for­ma­tion and dif­fer­ent kinds but more openly and with more peo­ple,” Zucker­berg said. “And that so­cial norm is just some­thing that has evolved over time.” On one Face­book page, Shaw­found an al­bum of pic­tures show­ing Par­sons drink­ing, smok­ing cig­a­rettes and— in his words—“smokin’ blunts” with col­lege fra­ter­nity broth­ers. The page be­longed to Par­sons’s friend, who had not en­abled his pri­vacy set­tings.

When ShawGoogled the other fi­nal­ist, Jones, she found only workre­lated sites that listed Jones as an ef­fec­tive project man­ager.

Par­sons’s on­line pho­tos caused Shawto re­think her choice and to grap­ple with the slip­pery bound­aries be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate life. THE RES­O­LU­TION: Shaw con­cluded that Par­sons would not fit in with the com­pany’s pro­fes­sional work en­vi­ron­ment and her team. She could not waste time or money on hir­ing the wrong per­son. Yet she won­dered whether she ar­rived at her de­ci­sion fairly. Af­ter all, Par­sons had not of­fered the in­for­ma­tion will­ingly, and he had set the ap­pro­pri­ate pri­vacy set­tings on his own Face­book page. Also, Shaw had not dis­closed that she would con­duct a back­ground check on­line. THE LES­SON: Many peo­ple do not re­al­ize the ex­tent to which their friends and as­so­ci­ates could harm their on­line rep­u­ta­tions. For ex­am­ple, friends who post and tag pho­tos with their name and on­line iden­tity on Face­book and else­where may have much more open pri­vacy set­tings. What­ever is pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble be­comes pub­lic in­for­ma­tion, no mat­ter who up­loads it. It is more ef­fi­cient for HR pro­fes­sion­als to con­duct on­line searches than to con­duct ref­er­ence checks, so this is a grow­ing dilemma for com­pa­nies.

Be­fore post­ing in­for­ma­tion and pho­to­graphs on Face­book, re­mem­ber that in the vir­tual world, our houses are made of glass. Ev­ery piece of data is per­ma­nent and stored in a dig­i­tal ar­chive. More than half of em­ploy­ers cite provoca­tive pho­to­graphs as the biggest fac­tor in the de­ci­sion not to hire.

Par­mar is a pro­fes­sor at the Dar­den School of Busi­ness.


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