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Is it wrong to follow/friend a job applicant?
August 20, 2010 1:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm hiring, and in addition to interviewing, checking references (official and un-), etc., I'd like to see how candidates are using Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. Facility with this stuff isn't a primary requirement of the job, but it's helpful; I also think it's a good way to gauge a candidate's judgement and to see how they manage their public face. On the other hand, it feels like following or friending is weird, or possibly an invasion of privacy. Is it?
posted by janet lynn to Work & Money (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
If it's set to public, it's fair game to check. But don't go out of your way to friend them on Facebook just to get access to what they say there, what they say behind the friend curtain is their own business. I also think that to ask them to approve your friend request could be a bit problematic because they may feel they have no option but to approve it in order to be considered seriously for the job. Others might see it as a sign of false hope.

In short, it's fine to see what they choose to make public, but it's weird to show up at their house and ask to have a look around.
posted by inturnaround at 1:52 PM on August 20, 2010 [23 favorites]


I know someone who knows someone who works for a startup called reppify that apparently does exactly this for you. If that's something you're into. I can't vouch for the company itself, all I know is that they comb social media sites for candidate info.
posted by phunniemee at 1:54 PM on August 20, 2010


I think it's wholly appropriate to do online searches for candidates. I think it's invasive and creepy to friend or follow them to see the private information.
posted by Zophi at 1:55 PM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Following is fine if they have their privacy settings set so their activity is visible to you. I think friending crosses a line though. They're not in a position to ignore your friend-offer so although you are not invading their privacy per se, they may have to change things or delete things etc. in order to confirm your friend request. The fact that they keep their online content private should tell you plenty about their judgment.
posted by headnsouth at 1:55 PM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'd take issue with the notion that it's a good way to gauge how a candidate manages their public face. By that argument, following them into a bar and watching them socialize with their friends would also be a good way to gauge that. Yes, a Facebook profile might have public information on it, but we engage in activity in many public faces. It's an error to assume that the public space on the internet is somehow more demanding of performances of professionalism - it's just easier to access than the pub. I'm not saying you can't look there, but the information you take from it won't tell you how they would behave around clients...
posted by jardinier at 1:55 PM on August 20, 2010 [44 favorites]


jardinier has some good thoughts. Another area of concern is the potential for creating liability for your employer.

If, in the process of doing your research, you discover that the individual is a [insert name of protected class, whether gender, racial, religious, or what-have-you] and bias finds its way into your decision to not hire and the candidate suspects it enough to bring up the matter with an employment law attorney, there could be trouble.

In some quarters, this can be an argument for not looking in the first place. Good idea to check any company policies governing this.
posted by John Borrowman at 2:02 PM on August 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Nthing "fair game if it is public." Just keep in mind, if you're out to find something objectionable, you will find something objectionable.

Also: how much does their public face matter? An issue with a salesman's Twitter account (complete with name) and and a lower-level IT guy's linked-on-Facebook Tumblr are two different animals.
posted by griphus at 2:03 PM on August 20, 2010


If, in the process of doing your research, you discover that the individual is a [insert name of protected class, whether gender, racial, religious, or what-have-you] and bias finds its way into your decision to not hire and the candidate suspects it enough to bring up the matter with an employment law attorney, there could be trouble.

Yes, looking at even public Facebook profile info will most likely answer questions you really shouldn't be asking.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:08 PM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


By that argument, following them into a bar and watching them socialize with their friends would also be a good way to gauge that.

The bar is constrained locationally and temporally in a way that your online presence isn't. If this employee will represent the company publicly in some sense, you can be sure others will be looking at the online presence of the employee, but the chances of a client stumbling across them in a bar are low. In any case, failing to institute minimum privacy settings on content that display egregious lack of professionalism would, to me, be a general lack of prudence. But that just means I wouldn't hire them, because that's not the type of person I want in my company, whereas you might be fine hiring them. That kind of subjective decision is something the interviewer is free to make.

That said, trying to gain access beyond what the general public has would be kind of creepy. You want to know how they choose to present themselves to the general public, but I would say it's none of your business how they act to their friends.
posted by Phire at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2010


Friending or following is weird. In most cases, even if they are hired friending or following would be weird, depends on the work environment. Taking a look at what is public however, is fair game, and I think pretty much expected in today's environment.
posted by yellowbinder at 2:10 PM on August 20, 2010


I think it's fine and pretty much expected these days to Google prospective employees and see what kind of an online presence they have. Especially if the job you're hiring for is a very public-facing one, it might be very important to know how they conduct themselves on Ye Olde Internette. But as others have said, it's crossing a line if you try to access things they're trying to keep private or "friends-only." I would not want to work for someone who insisted (or even suggested) that I add them to my friends list. Basically, check out their public face all you want, but only their public face.

(Last year I briefly worked for a small company which I never should have worked for -- they were asking me inappropriate personal questions during the interview and expected way too much from me in terms of letting them into the details of my private life. The only reason I took the job in spite of those red flags was that I desperately needed the money.)
posted by Gator at 2:11 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I still had a facebook account and discovered a potential employer tried to friend me, I'd probably move on (unless I was *really* hard up for work and thought that was the only shot I had.) If it's public, go for it (with the caveats jardinier mentions) but otherwise leave it alone.
posted by sanko at 2:14 PM on August 20, 2010


If you're only concerned with their public face, why are you fishing for stuff that is kept private?
posted by milarepa at 2:22 PM on August 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


Agreeing with milarepa.

Depending on what the job description was and unless it was a primary aspect of the job, I would be offended and probably tell you to f-off.

Also, be careful what you might find. You may eliminate Candidate X for very valid reasons, but if they think it is because they are vociferous supporter of cause Y you might be opening yourself and company up to more problems.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 2:37 PM on August 20, 2010


I understand that the rationale is to see how they "manage their public face." As many have said above, if that is really the motivation, then it would be better to limit your sleuthing to observing what they have done publicly. So, no, do not "friend" them or take any steps beyond what you can see publicly.

Discussing a bit further, where I become uncomfortable is in judging people for "private" (in quotes because we all know it isn't truly that private) conversations or photos. For example, the teacher fired for a picture of her (legally) drinking, posted to myspace. http://www.reputationdefenderblog.com/2008/01/21/teacher-fired-over-myspace-photo/

That one had me scratching my head, and made me glad I own my own company where no one can fire me. There certainly are things one could find in my extensive online history that would look "unprofessional" and yet are completely irrelevant to the important questions:

- Can I do the job?
- Will I be professional with clients?
- Will I treat confidential material carefully?

I strongly suggest that you have written guidelines if you go this route. You should know and be able to articulate how you will judge the information you find. The word "professional" is far too amorphous. You need to be specific, not only to make it easier for yourself, but so that you do not run into tricky legal problems when you uncover sensitive/protected information.
posted by Invoke at 2:41 PM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would personally find it offensive and unethical if it went beyond a cursory googling of my name.

Also, a Facebook profile's basic info section often contains age, relationship status, and sexual orientation information. And since you're actively going looking for this information... I'm not a lawyer, but that seems like a pretty big legal no-no in the US.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:54 PM on August 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


The bigger issue I see is that you would presumably disqualify, or put at a disadvantage, people who don't have a Facebook account.
posted by whiskeyspider at 2:56 PM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


If I were an applicant and you did this to me, I would withdraw my application, tell your HR department (on the chance that this was not consonant with your company's stated policies), and tell everyone I know that you were a shady employer. But that's just me.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 3:00 PM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


An afterthought: If there is ever an activity that you can choose to do or not do in a workplace setting, and you find yourself wondering whether that activity is "weird, or possibly an invasion of privacy," the answer is "don't do it."
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 3:06 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's disappointing to see this idea broached. We are going to have to get more respectful of people's personal off-time activities if we don't want to live in a world where our own are also dug up and thrown in our face constantly.

IF this is an important job skill, write and ask each applicant if they can offer you an example of some online activity that shows their skill with social media in representing an employer or volunteer organization. Look at what they offer you; that way, they've selected it as part of a portfolio.
posted by Miko at 3:15 PM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


milarepa: "If you're only concerned with their public face, why are you fishing for stuff that is kept private?"

Not only that, but is the position being hired for a public-facing one?
posted by rhizome at 3:28 PM on August 20, 2010


I'm confused-- do you want to do this because you want to see if they have the judgement make the public online image of themselves presentable, or because you want to see their social networking skills, because it's related to the job function?

Anyway, friending and trying to get in on their private domains feels inappropriate. Even if you want to see how well they use social networks, it creates an awkward situation for them, because they'll likely have to hide some things.

Another thing I want to bring up is that facebook in particular are changing their privacy settings all the time. I'm someone who very much values privacy on the internet, and for the longest time, I (and many other people) did not realize that the information that used to be private has been made public. Some one who doesn't use their social networking sites too often might still not realize this. It's just something to consider when making judgments on other people's judgment calls.
posted by lacedcoffee at 3:29 PM on August 20, 2010


If people don't need to know how to use Facebook or Twitter or whatever to get the job, then you don't need to know if they can use it. If it is a requirement of the job, and they don't know, then offer them training in how to use it. Assuming that it's work related, how they manage their private face as a person is likely to be very different to how they manage it as an employee.

If you want to know more about a person, which is the only reasonable reason I can think of to try to find out more about them via social networking sites, without their explicit consent, then there's something wrong somewhere. What I do outside of work and how I manage my Facebook page is none of my employers business.

If you're intent on going ahead with searching for them, you should have no problem telling them that you're going to do it and that it's part of the hiring process.
posted by Solomon at 3:33 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, no friending or following if they have enough sense to make it private - it's unlikely that any client would be able to see it either.

But if it's public, and you perceive it as a negative and it's not protected under things like EEOC guidelines, etc., it's fair game as part of a decision in the hiring process.
posted by anitanita at 3:42 PM on August 20, 2010


"Publicly available on the internet" isn't the same as "appropriate for hiring officers to seek out."

If you go to my Facebook page, you'll find out that I'm a bisexual atheist. While that is public information, if you asked me anything about my sexual orientation or religion during a job interview, I'd end the interview and send a letter to *your* boss about your egregious behavior. And I suspect you agree that I'd be right to be incensed.

Seriously, though, unless you're hiring someone because of their online personality (like, Wonkette, say), this is not an okay way to find out about someone's judgment. It is, however, a fantastic way to find out about a candidate's race, religion, sexual orientation, political views, national origin, and all manner of job-irrelevant information. And while I'm sure you wouldn't discriminate intentionally, implicit bias tests indicate that unconscious discrimination is widespread.

But if that hasn't swayed you, consider what you would do if one of your candidates' Facebook pages is filled with well-wishes on her plan to attempt pregnancy. Or that she can find employer-provided health insurance for her expensive to treat chronic illness.

Are you certain you'd be able to evaluate that candidate fairly and in compliance with civil rights laws? Are you certain you'd be able to prove you had done so if she found out she didn't get the job after you read her Facebook when, as you've said here, Facebook skills are not a primary job requirement?
posted by Marty Marx at 4:02 PM on August 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


I never understood this inclination, myself. I was once friends with a guy whose name was on the level of 'John Smith' and unless you know enough about him to identify him based on special interests, I can't see how a casual surfer could even be assured that what they find is really about him. So you may be judging him wrongly based on information you see about another John Smith. Or let's say someone is named Mary Lewis and you google them and come across a page where Mary Smethingelse and Dave Lewis both appear as names on that page. It will show up in your 'Mary Lewis' search even if it is not about Mary Lewis! And thinking of my own name, google searches will get you:

- Several usenet posts from when I was 15, there was no Internet Archive and assumption that all usenet posts would last forever, and I was too stupid to know I should not use my full name on-line

- Several projects my sister is involved with (this is on par with the Mary Lewis example---my sister's last name appears on the page, along with my first name paired with someone elses's last name, so searching for my full name will generate these pages)

- Numerous Japanese pharmaceutical pages. Apparently my last name is the same as a medication which is sold in Japan.

So how would any of this information be useful to a potential employer? Would it not be better to simply meet the person yourself and as an interviewer determine whether they seem like sensible and responsible people?
posted by JoannaC at 4:21 PM on August 20, 2010


I'm confused-- do you want to do this because you want to see if they have the judgement make the public online image of themselves presentable, or because you want to see their social networking skills, because it's related to the job function?

Even if it's related to job function, if an applicant has private facebook and twitter accounts, the answer to how they use social networking is "carefully."

The only reason someone would want to do this is so they can snoop around and vet people's private lives like their running for a goddamn senate seat.
posted by milarepa at 4:35 PM on August 20, 2010


their = they're
posted by milarepa at 4:36 PM on August 20, 2010


If you think it is pertinent to the job, ask them how they use social media sites in the interview and let them talk to it (give them an opportunity to show you on their own). If you are concerned about impact to clients establish a policy and explain it up front.

As a manager, I avoid all of those things. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but 20 years ago, I wouldn't drive by an applicants house and peek in their windows to gauge their judgement or their public face. Just because it is easy doesn't mean you should do it. Privacy is something we should all value.
posted by Edward L at 5:04 PM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The bigger issue I see is that you would presumably disqualify, or put at a disadvantage, people who don't have a Facebook account.

I would think there would be the opposite problem. Surely the OP isn't going to disqualify someone from getting the job for not having a Facebook account. But would people with publicly viewable Facebook profiles (or other non-professional sites) be at an advantage or disadvantage? That depends on whether their online content makes them look better or worse than if you hadn't viewed it. I would guess most people's online content probably makes them look worse than if you hadn't viewed it. After all, without viewing their online content, you presumably know only what you've seen through the normal application process (resume, interview, references, etc.), and people are obviously more careful to make those things look good to a prospective employer.

If I'm right about this, then you'd be disadvantaging people with unusual names, since people with common names will tend to be easier to find. If you search for my first and last name, John Cohen, you'll be indundated with lots of different people; if someone has an exotic Italian name (there aren't many common Italian last names), you'll be more likely to find them. You'd also be disadvantaging people who are more free with plastering their photo all over the place online (since you'll often use this to verify that you've found the right person). Isn't that kind of guaranteed to lead to some disparities sooner or later?
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:05 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


What kind of job is this they're applying for?

The fact that my folks aren't customer-facing might make my situation a little different, but I can't imagine gathering one useful fact about a potential hire from the internet. Anything to do with their skillset should be covered by the time you've confirmed the resume, checked refs and certifications. The candidate's personality, people-skills, judgment...those are pretty subjective, and you're going to end up surprised no matter what, even if you spy on them on the internet, because the internet is not your work face, nor your public face...it's your internet face.
posted by mittens at 6:32 PM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Surely the OP isn't going to disqualify someone from getting the job for not having a Facebook account.

If someone said they didn't have a Facebook account, she'd have no way to determine if they were telling the truth or lying to hide some online data. So both groups would have to be placed in the "probably not" pile.
posted by whiskeyspider at 6:50 PM on August 20, 2010


If I got a friend request from someone who had interviewed me (but not yet hired me), I would think that they either:

1.) were planning to hire me and were being friendly and wanting to connect, but because they were doing this before telling me I'd gotten the job, I would find that very strange

2.) they wanted to check up on me just for the job's sake, and because I only accept friend requests from people I either actually know or will be or are good business contacts, I would want very much to deny their request, but would fear that that would destroy my chances of getting the job, and I would resent them for putting me in that position.

Job hunting is SO hard. I know, because I'm doing it and have been for a while. Sites like these can be helpful, but you have to know how to use them, and know what's appropriate and what's not, and I would definitely consider a friend request on Facebook for the sake of spying on someone you might not even hire NOT appropriate. Aside from that, it's just terribly mean-spirited.
posted by FlyByDay at 7:12 PM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


On Facebook I would lean heavily toward friending you and putting you in my happy "can't see anything about me but I was compelled to approve you, and now I feel conflicted every time I see you" group. My relationship with you would be permanently tainted. Didn't you read that note on my site saying you should add me on LinkedIn, geez?

On Twitter, well, that's public. You are doing what a bunch of spammers, my buddies, and my seven-year-old niece did. Weird and intrusive, but whatever.
posted by SMPA at 7:31 PM on August 20, 2010


If someone said they didn't have a Facebook account, she'd have no way to determine if they were telling the truth or lying to hide some online data. So both groups would have to be placed in the "probably not" pile.

What? I literally don't understand what you're saying.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:29 PM on August 20, 2010


OP here. Thank you all, and keep it coming, if you're so inclined. And I agree with what I think is the general sentiment, though you've articulated it better than I could: What's public (reading or following a public twitter feed) is fair game, but fishing for what's private (friending on Facebook) is not. Also, for what it's worth, what I'm hiring for is a highly public position, in which one's ability to be credible to and professional with a wide audience is pretty important. (Yes, kind of like Wonkette, or maybe a PR staffer on a political staff or something.) And I'd suggest that in this situation, it would be irresponsible of me as a hiring manager to ignore a candidate's (public) blog posts or twitter feed or anything else the competition could see and use.

Something else that's evolved out of this discussion: There are clearly generational differences here. My 27-year-old coworker told me he wouldn't think a friend request from a potential employer was weird or any kind of red flag. And my 24-year-old cousin told me she — and all of her friends — expect that employers will search for them online (and that the smart ones have taken steps to sanitize their online presence).

Lastly, this thread made me think about how *I* would react to a friend request from a future employer. I think I would decline the request with a polite message like this: "Hi so-and-so. I've really enjoyed our conversations about XYZ job, and I continue to be really enthusiastic about the opportunity. But as a matter of policy, I limit my Facebook profile to friends and family. I'm sure you understand."
posted by janet lynn at 9:18 PM on August 20, 2010


My 27-year-old coworker told me he wouldn't think a friend request from a potential employer was weird or any kind of red flag. And my 24-year-old cousin told me she — and all of her friends — expect that employers will search for them online (and that the smart ones have taken steps to sanitize their online presence).

Those perspectives are fine, but I think it should also be noted that at those relatively young ages, they are likely to be more optimistic about the working world than is realistic, and unfamiliar with the kinds of career damage that can be inflicted by reputation assassination. Nor have they really gotten a sense of what kinds of things may impact them in their personal lives - weird things - illnesses, nasty breakups, enemies, stalkers, family blowouts, legal troubles, reproductive issues, etc. They may feel perfectly comfortable with this now - but they may also have not yet had enough experience with public information, as adults, to make a better judgement than a more experienced person would on this issue.

I understand what you need in terms of public presence and desiring a low risk of exposure for your organization through a new hire. But it seems to me that if this is really significant for this job, you shouldn't be winging it without even a sense of what you're looking for or where, really, to look, or where you are on safe legal ground and where you're shaky. You should probably look into contracting with a background check firm, who can do the survey and give you the reports - and your interviewees will have to sign off on the background check form during the interview process. I just went through this. I'm not enthused, but I agreed to it. The form authorized them to view public info about me on the internet. Having to go through the form process helped me, as the prospective employee, think carefully about what I have out there (that I know if) and also assured me the check was in the hands of professionals, somewhat less likely in my view to misunderstand, misinterpret, overemphasize, or confuse me with a namesake.
posted by Miko at 9:28 PM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


case in point
posted by Miko at 9:37 PM on August 20, 2010


There are clearly generational differences here. My 27-year-old coworker told me he wouldn't think a friend request from a potential employer was weird or any kind of red flag.

I would. I'm 29.

Lastly, this thread made me think about how *I* would react to a friend request from a future employer. I think I would decline the request with a polite message like this: "Hi so-and-so. I've really enjoyed our conversations about XYZ job, and I continue to be really enthusiastic about the opportunity. But as a matter of policy, I limit my Facebook profile to friends and family. I'm sure you understand."

There's no way I would be comfortable sending a message like that. Expressly declining someone's offer to make a connection when you're in the middle of the hiring process with them? No way.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:58 PM on August 20, 2010


I wish I could link to this, but I haven't been able to find it online yet, but in a recent scientific study mentioned in Psychology Today, employers who looked at potential employees' social media profiles were less likely to choose the most qualified person for the position.
posted by drezdn at 4:58 PM on August 21, 2010


I'm 42 and I would consider a friend request from a potential employer as either a test or as coercive, even an employer who was hiring for a highly public position. It might make me rethink the job and YOUR ethics as a hirer.

I would, however, totally expect you to check out my public identity on the Net.
posted by kalessin at 6:45 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


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