The Perils of Social Media (Long)

In my column Casting the First Stone I discussed the trend of checking people out on social media, e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, let alone just using search engines with permutations of name, job titles, locations, etc.  (Repeating a recommendation for job seekers: if you’re concerned about your online presence, don’t just search for yourself, but recruit friends to do it for you as search engines customize your search results based on your individual past history.  Things can get filtered out and thus overlooked if you just do it on your own, or if everyone only uses only one search engine like google.  Diversify those searching and how they search.)

I also mentioned the fact that when you search for yourself, you will doubtless find links associated with people of similar, or even identical, names.  As I mentioned in that prior column, I found a political rant by a person of the same name local to me – not like “David Hunt” is an uncommon name! – and observed that an HR person looking for me might well conclude a priori that they had the correct David Hunt with a 50/50 Left/Right chance of being offended (LinkedIn shows three people named “David Hunt” within 50 miles of my zip code, but almost a score in the Greater Boston Area, and per other websites there are dozens local to me).

I recently stumbled, while surfing, onto a link to a rather… interesting post in a college newspaper.  Decorum prevents me from giving the link, but please be tolerant as I attempt to treat the fine line between relating enough to discuss it and too much information and thus becoming salacious… essentially, this young college woman writes a s*x advice column and discusses some personal experiences.  (Hopefully I’ve stayed on the right side of the line here.)  Obviously this young woman believed she has something interesting and noteworthy to say, and she said it.  And after I saw the title and – admittedly with a bit of perverse curiosity – clicked through to skim the article I did a mental facepalm and said “Oy!”.

Naturally, I had to jump on LinkedIn.  Typing in this person’s name and the school she attends, I found eight people, none of whom have pictures.  Any one could be the person in question.  The column does not identify what subject the student is studying so there’s no way to differentiate one from another, although there is her picture attached to the column itself.  (Please note: Both males and females are equally capable of putting controversial stuff on the internet.  I am using this particular column as an example only as it just came to my attention.)  Given that this involves one of the “big three” – Sex, Religion, or Politics – it’s particularly relevant.

Put yourself into the position of a hiring manager finding this tidbit on the internet about a potential employee, what would you think?  And even with eight possible people this could be, would you take the chance on any of them absent a way to differentiate one from another?  And if you were, in fact, holding this individual’s resume in your hand and understood it truly was their resume – perhaps because they came in for an interview and you could match picture to reality – would you be considering what adverse dynamics this person might introduce to your group if this information became generally known?

Where am I going with this?  Two places.

For job seekers:

Not only will what you post affect you, but others with the same name can also affect you.  It’s not enough to police your own social media posts and internet presence – and police them you must – you need to be aware of posts by people of the same name that might be considered objectionable.  You can’t just say, upon finding something negative, “Well, I didn’t post that!”  The Big Three are social media reputation death traps, and it doesn’t need to be you placing landmines in your own job search path, just someone with the same name.  Thus, be aware of what’s out there with your name attached.  If you can find it, a potential hiring manager could find it and assume it’s you, so there are several courses of action to be taken.

First, drive it down.  Tell your friends (include the link and title for information purposes only so they can recognize it; they shouldn’t actually click the link).  Have them, on a daily basis, click on the next 5+ links below it that appear innocuous.  Clicking on those links will drive the negative one downward.  Lather, rinse, repeat daily until the bad one is driven off the first few pages of a search and is now not likely to be seen – remember that company people are busy, and probably will not go past the first few pages of search results, especially when they notice things seem to be getting irrelevant.

Second, operate under the “no surprises” philosophy.  If there’s no way the link is going to vanish through your efforts, as I suspect this piece will not for quite some time, when you get to the interview consider proactively mentioning it in a discussion with HR and state that this is not you.  Other opinions may vary, but I think that a comment like this might work:

I understand that these days potential candidates are vetted by searching on the internet and on social media.  I take my reputation seriously and have checked myself out – and found a piece written about <subject> by a person who shares my name.  I want to assure you this is not me, so operating under the “no surprises” theory I wanted to proactively inform you of it so you were aware of it.

This applies to background checks as well.  While I understand that most people are not wont to run background checks on themselves, it might pay to do so.  Some years ago I had someone else’s felony conviction placed under my social security number in a private background database, about which I wrote here on my old blog.  Yes, it’s cleared up and has remained so to the best of my knowledge, but despite my efforts to monitor it, such mistakes can be made again.  Under Murphy’s Law, it would be my bad luck to have it reappear just as I’m in the process of being vetted for an offer.  Now, in discussions with HR, I proactively mention it – again, “no surprises”.

There is another corollary to material under your name.  In today’s extreme political climate, it is not beyond the pale to imagine someone placing false-flag posts to put you in a bad light if you’ve stood for something publically.  Again, there is nothing you can do to prevent someone from doing this, but forewarned is forearmed.  (And I’d opine that, once done, most people would not go and click on it multiple times to maintain a high position in search results – once posted I suspect they’d move onto the next target on their list… thus making such things amenable to being driven down into the internet weeds.)

Lastly, if it was something you posted in the heat of the moment, or an article like this written a while ago, can you contact the website administrator?  If yes, explain your job search situation and ask them to remove it.  You still may need to do the drive-down method but the link will be dead.  Also, be sure to craft a narrative about it and include how you’ve learned something from the experience if it comes up.

For hiring managers and HR:

First, please be aware that most names are not unique, even in a localized geographical area.  Unless a person is an immigrant with an incredibly unusual name – “unusual” in one person’s opinion may be hum-drum common for another – with other identifying attributes like profession, school, etc., it can be difficult to truly pin down a controversial item to one specific individual.  I would not have imagined the article writer’s name to be common, but with eight associated with this school alone, I was wrong.  (Side note: A person I knew at a former employer said they are the only person with their name in the US; I checked on LinkedIn.  They were right – and the only person on LinkedIn, a global site, with their name.  I can’t fathom how uncommon this actually is.)

Second, I’d like to mention the comments on the article.  Almost all were supportive of this woman’s experiences.  Societal norms change.  What an older hiring manager might find objectionable, one of this person’s generation might barely give this a thought especially if they, too, have similar thoughts or experiences.  Since many people define, in part, what is “normal” by their peers’ actions, some may truly not see the controversy in what they post.  Consider that many Millenials think nothing of posting intimate details of their lives for others to see.  Many have come of age with facebook, twitter, smart phones, etc.  Just as hiring managers expect candidates to be tech-savvy regardless of their age, older hiring managers should also grasp the culture of Millenials and make allowances.

Third, consider the material, and its age.  Is it truly just illicit, e.g., drunken or racy pictures?  When was it posted, and could the person have changed since then?  Remember, the internet is forever.  If it’s political, is it truly a rant, or merely the taking of a side in a well-stated argument.  I opine two things here:

  1. Our country needs involved people of all stripes.  In the “marketplace of ideas” a free and honest debate is necessary for our country.  We should not be afraid of people who have public opinions, particularly if they are reasoned and eloquent.
  2. A person who can communicate well in the political arena (absent bigotry, calls for violence, etc.) can doubtless do so on work topics.  Communication is a critical skill, and not easily taught.  A person who demonstrably has the ability to communicate effectively should be considered one step ahead.   (Which is one reason I write here – to show I can write.)

Lastly, people are people, i.e., imperfect beings.  They make mistakes, and do things without consideration of long-term consequences.  As I said in that prior column:

“Hiring managers and human resources people search the internet for indications about a candidate’s personality, character, and human failings – and then are shocked and horrified to discover candidates have personalities, characters, and human failings.”

The Undiscovered Country

Social media’s explosion onto the scene in recruitment means new ways to investigate and vet candidates, as well as new ways for people to do controversial or share outright stupid things publically.  Both sides of the table need to be aware of the pitfalls in this new landscape, and make allowances as its still-shifting terrain and limits are explored.

Tread carefully!

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

5 thoughts on “The Perils of Social Media (Long)

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