Thursday, January 24, 2013
On Googling Job Candidates
I don’t know if I’m just the fluky exception or if this is indicative of a larger truth, but I don’t Google job candidates.
I hadn’t really thought about it until the MLA conference. In the course of discussion there, someone who’s on the market talked about what hiring committees find when they Google her. I mentioned that I don’t Google candidates. Everyone acted like I had admitted still believing in the Tooth Fairy. But my practice makes sense, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
Hiring managers, and people on search committees, have to go through some pretty specific training from HR about the kinds of questions we are and aren’t allowed to ask. Certain topics are entirely off limits unless the candidate volunteers them; even then, you shouldn’t pursue.
The idea behind those rules is twofold. One, certain kinds of personal knowledge can form the basis of biased judgments, and we don’t want those to prevail. That can happen inadvertently among people of conscious goodwill, so it’s better just to prevent the opportunity from arising. Second, once you know something, it’s impossible to un-know it. If I didn’t know that Jen was a Yankee fan, then my decision not to hire her had nothing to do with my low opinion of Yankee fans. But if I knew, it’s hard to disprove the influence.
In an interview, you can craft your questions to avoid troublesome areas. When checking references, you can do pretty much the same thing, adjusting for the third person. Yes, some people slip through the interview and then disappoint when they get the job, but I’ve had pretty great results over the years with the people I’ve hired. Not perfect, but the batting average is far better than, say, Jeter’s. With experience and forethought, it’s possible to learn much of what you actually need to know through the applications and interviews.
But on Google, anything goes, and it goes with varying degrees of accuracy. And I say that as an avowed fan of Google.
Some people have relatively common names. (If you Google my name, you land first on a triathlete. It’s not a striking resemblance.) Even if you find the right person, you may or may not be able to trust the source on which you landed. Or, worse, you may find out something you can’t un-know. And then you have a real problem.
I just have a hard time squaring the relatively astringent rules for interview questions with the anything-goes information available online. My personal solution is to separate the two. There may be a better way, but I haven’t found it.
Yet for all this, job candidates seem to take it as given that they get Googled. And maybe they do.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found or seen a way to square the increasingly strict rules about interview questions with the ubiquity of information on the web?
But I don't worry much about job search committees Googling me. I've been watching my department do five different searches this semester, and talking to the committee members, I can't imagine any of them have time to Google me, much less the motivation--certainly not at the earliest stages; maybe when they get to a finalist position, but I suspect at that point personal interaction means a lot more.
Study from Germany (referenced in Gardner's book "Risk", I think) had experienced judges looking at trial evidence and recommending a sentence. (Cases had already been decided — the researchers weren't fiddling with justice.) They had the judges roll some dice on a pretext and record the total before they studied the evidence and recommended a sentence. The higher the number rolled, the higher the sentence — statistically significant correlation.
Kinda scary to think that an experienced professional* can be unconsciously influenced by something they know is unconnected with the matter at hand.
Relevance to googling candidates: you will be influenced by what you find, even if what you find isn't about the candidate.
*German judges aren't elected.
To be fair, though, I have a personal bias about this. I don't have a common name, and a database listing with my salary is the first hit when you Google me. I do not love this.
When I'm involved in a search, I don't Google candidates. The hits might have nothing to do with the candidate him- or herself, and if they do, the information might point to things that are irrelevant to the position.
The only exception I make is if a candidate refers to some professional activity in the cover letter or CV--a research project, conference, etc.--that sounds interesting and about which I would like to know more. In that case I use a specific search query that will turn up the relevant information (research project home page, conference program, etc.).
It is so interesting to find that the only close match for a person's name is from someone who produced the dissertation before the person was born. This implies that the person's "doctorate" might have been acquired through other means.
It is equally fun to find that your brother has a clone (same spelling of first middle and last names) that got a non-physics PhD involving Thyroid Hormones.
By the way, on the broader issue of curating online identity, I referenced your post where you explained why you don't place the names of your family members in a paper for an MBA HR class.