Naked celebrities and pre-employment screening: they may have more in common than you think…

Earlier this year the CIPD asked me to be part of a panel at an event on pre-employment screening. Both at that event, and many times since, the hot topic of conversation has been the role of social media, if any, in screening applicants for jobs.

However I think this is an even bigger topic. And articles like this one from Business Insider on the market for naked celebrity photos really make you sit up and take notice.

You see this is an issue about personal reputation. Or personal brand if you prefer. And we all need to be better at how we manage it.

Three quotes on this come to mind. Firstly from the internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee. “Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it’s all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well”.

He’s got it in a nutshell. If you put information out there on the web expect people to read it and use it. And that includes uploading photographs that would make your Mum weep and your Dad mad.  Oh, and make a potential employer think twice about hiring you.

This brings me neatly to my second quote. “Information is the oxygen of the modern age” said Ronald Reagan. And he’s right. We’ve never had, nor ever demanded, more information than we do today.

Studying for my A levels I had to walk a mile and a half to the local library to look up things in books. So I did it sparingly. Today my children move their fingers across keyboards and have a new best friend called Google. A friend that appears to know the answer to almost every question, pretty much instantaneously. That’s a whole lot more fun than being scowled at by a librarian who questions the temerity of a teenager wandering into their temple of silence.

Which is why the issue of employment references is so interesting. They’ve gone in the opposite direction – in many cases now telling you next to nothing. So no wonder this generates a problem in a world where information is so generally accessible.

“Nature abhors a vacuum”. Quite right Aristotle. He may have said it about 2,400 years ago but this completely sums up the problem. If HR can’t provide quality background information in the age of Mr Google then DIY checking is almost guaranteed. And it won’t mean a walk to the library. Just a peek at the iPad in front of the telly will suffice. Any HR Director who thinks that doesn’t happen needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Personally I think there are two pressing issues. Firstly we all have to be more informed about managing our online presence. While privacy settings are part of the answer (I remain shocked how many people leave their Facebook accounts etc wide open to the world) they are not enough. If somebody wants information on you bad enough they’ll find a way to get it. If you don’t want them to have it, don’t put it on the internet. Listen to Tim Berners-Lee. You can argue all you like about the ethics – but once the damage is done you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Chances are you won’t even know who’s browsed your photos…

Secondly HR as a profession needs to agree some common standards for referencing that recognise the realities of the information age. If employers all agreed to put their duty to each other ahead of the slim chance of getting sued by a former employee, then that might stop the DIY approach to online candidate checking in its tracks. If all the profession is prepared to share are name, dates employed and last job title then the information generation of line managers will not sit back and accept it.

Two final thoughts. Firstly I am sure there are hackers out there who can see a business opportunity in probing the secrets of top executives. You don’t need to be a celebrity to have a dollar sign around your neck. Come to think of it, you don’t need to be a Board member either.

Oh and of course the tables can, and are, turned. How many candidates search Facebook etc for info on the interviewer they are about to meet? I suspect that happens rather a lot. Now what are the ethics about that one?

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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