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?  

If you google my last name with either my nick-name or first name, you get a sexpert (same thing if you add "Dr." in front of it). It took eight years of careful curation to get my name with my university affiliation to link to something about me rather than about either an alumni or someone in accounting (I don't mean a professor, I mean someone who does accounting for the University).

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.
There's also the unconscious contamination you'll get from mis-hits.

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.
I'm with you. In fact, I'm chairing a search right now, and I haven't even thought to Google the finalists. Even though I use Google for just about everything else I do at work. My searches are not at the faculty level(I am staff, so I typically hire office support personnel) but the reasoning still applies. If I Google my candidate and find that her favorite book is "Twilight," this is no way changes her suitability for the administrative assistant job, but I might think a little less of her, even though I don't intend to. Better to just stick to resumes, interviews, and references.

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.
My sister-in-law, who does hiring for a factory, would never ever google an applicant or look up a facebook profile for an applicant for precisely the reason you can't un-know what you find.
This makes perfect sense from a hiring perspective. From an applicant perspective, you can't assume the unknown people judging your application are necessarily wise or well-meaning, though.
I have seen one way to avoid this problem. Someone from HR, or who otherwise is not on the hiring committee will do the search. The will report only relevant information, in writing, to the search committee. This way the search committee doesn't have to "un-know" something, and it doesn't really matter what the person who actually did the search knows.
If you Google my first and last names - as some of my students did last semester - you get links to a retired pro hockey player, a late jazz saxophonist, a pharmacologist, and several other Brian Ogilvies, as well as to my info. A few students asked my TA last semester whether I had played professional hockey before becoming a professor!

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.).
I feel like the types of people that hire me after getting "contaminated" by the google hits for my name of the lesbian hairstylist from sex and the city are EXACTLY the kinds of people I'd want to work for.
My favorite is UMI Dissertation Express for looking up the basis for people's graduate degrees.

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.
I happen to share a name with a sort-of well-known model. Anyone who Googles me before an interview is going to be pretty disappointed! More seriously, though, it's good to know that not all employers do this. I don't post anything embarrassing or controversial on Facebook anyway, but even if I did it should not be determinative.
I was once standing next to a beautiful woman at a Miami landmark hotel and the body man for a celebrity came over and asked her if she would like to meet him. She replied: "Let me Google him first and then I'll decide." Everyone Google searches everyone, so if the hiring decision maker doesn't they will still have to deal with the fall-out when everyone else does. I think of the teacher who was recently fired, not directly because she had worked in porn but because her collegues and students could locate her work. Leaving behind for a moment whether this is acceptable, firing someone after they are hired for information that could have easily been obtained before they were hired is a situation which should never have arose.

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.
I assume every hiring committee is cheating, pretty much. I've sure as hell never heard of the EEOC or anyone else helping someone get a job.

FYI, CHE reporter Audrey Williams June contacted me for an interview after reading my comment on this post!
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