In each issue, the Harvard Business Review has a section called “Case Commentary” where they propose a fictional but realistic scenario and invite different prominent folks to respond. I was given the great honor of being invited to respond to a case entitled “We Googled You.”
In Diane Coutu’s hypothetical scenario, Fred is trying to decide whether or not to hire Mimi after one of Fred’s co-workers googles Mimi and finds newspaper clippings about Mimi protesting Chinese policies. [The case study is 2 pages – this is a very brief synopsis.] Given the scenario, we were then asked, “should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”
Unfortunately, Harvard Business Review does not make their issues available for free download (although they are available at the library and the case can be purchased for $6) *but* i acquired permission to publish my commentary online for your enjoyment. It’s a little odd taken out of context, but i still figured some folks might enjoy my view on this matter, especially given that the press keep asking me about this exact topic. (Update: apparently HBR has the case without responses on their site for the Interactive Case Study.)
Oh I love how like-minded people can be thinking about the same sort of topics at the same time, without having to actually talk to each other about it. The “collective psyche” in a way.
We, meaning my old work colleagues and I, had a relatively rousing conversation at a back porch bbq about this exact topic last week. Izzy Neis was chatting about this sort of thing last week as well on her blog.
Basically, where I net out is that “it depends” – big stance, eh? But really, as in many cases of management, there are too many variables to make a definitive law on how to rule in these instances.
For example, in online community management hiring, finding a ton of hits in different social networks and even an active identity in certain ones is a great asset to have. Hiring a web designer, you are going to be a bit confused if they don’t have a presence online, especially if they don’t have digital examples of their work. Hiring an HR manager, an active profile on LinkedIn or other professional sites would possibly show initiative.
In each of the instances above, a political identity, much like the Mimi example in the Harvard Business case study, probably wouldn’t have much impact on the decision of whether or not to hire the employee. But if the job was for a something that that background may directly hurt the repuation of the company, it might be different.
For example, explicit sexual information in easily accessible public profiles would definitely make me look twice and much more in depth at a potential candidate for an online community position for a kids network. Partially due to the content, but also do to the lack of discretion that person had regarding their public persona. It is part of a kids community manager to teach the need for this sort of discretion to their audience, in my opinion, and if they don’t have a sufficient grasp on it, I would be a bit perplexed.
If the information was years and years old it would have less of an impact as well, as that person may not have realized their future path at the time of the info. I chatted with a new friend this week regarding his fear of blogging for that very reason, a fear that was underscored when he discovered that once info goes online, it could be potentialy cached on some server somewhere forever.
Disclosure of that info to a potential employer would also depend on the context of the position and the type of information access. If you were applying for a campaign manager position for a local democratic official, but your past public persona on the internet says you were a vocal rebulican blogger in the past, I think mentioning your new mindset in your cover letter or during your interview would probably be a good idea. On the flip side, if you are a furry in Second Life, your supervisor at your accounting firm probably doesn’t need to know much about that.
Thankfully, as humans, we are equipt with reasoning skills and compassion. I don’t think it’s wrong to alert your HR manager if you find “questionable” content about a potential hire online. How you act on it is where the situation gets more sticky.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that, hopefully, parents of today’s youth are teaching this discretion and forethought to their kids. I have no problem helping with it in the informal learning environments that I work in personally (camps, afterschool programs, online, etc), but it should ALSO be taught in the home and schools and everywhere else a child picks up their value systems.
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