Recruiting and Vetting Job Candidates Using Social Tools


Government agencies, especially municipalities, face many challenges in adapting HR divisions to best practices for recruiting, vetting and retaining the best and the brightest of the under-40 workforce. In San Francisco, the workforce now averages 46 years old, and recruitment of Generation X and Millennial Generation workers is constrained. To address this, public agencies must develop policies that address the new realities of how younger workers find jobs and blend live-work balance. These concerns must also be balanced with privacy rights, EEO, and the perceptions of older workers.

Online social sharing sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and a plethora of others are becoming increasingly popular. For example, Facebook claims more than 200 million active users, more than half of who log in to the site at least once a day. Surprisingly, the site’s fastest demographic is those over 35 years old. Google search is also being increasingly used to vet job candidates.

In a 2008 paper presented at the International Communications Association meeting in Canada (“Cybervetting [Potential] Employees: An Emerging Area of Study for Organizational Communication”), B.L. Berkelaar points out the Google had become “old fashioned” in the face of the plethora of “formerly inaccessible, often detailed information about potential job candidates available through social sharing sites.

Scary? Or Not.

Much of the written material on this topic is negative, such as Carly Brandenburg’s article in the Federal Communications Law Journal (Vol. 60) ” The Newest Way to Screen Job Applicants: A Social Networker’s Nightmare.” Brandenburg cites the preponderance of social groups on Facebook with subjects such as sex, drugs, pornography and alcohol. She cites a study by (widely cited on this topic) that surveyed 1,150 hiring managers nationwide, in which 12 percent said they had searched for applicants on social sites. Of those, 63 percent reportedly did not hire based on what they found with those searches. Bradenburg also points out that reasonable expectation of privacy does not exist for many candidates active on social sites. The his landmark book about the changing nature of work and business, “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman writes that early educators must demonstrate how online behavior may affect offline employment and career growth. He also mentions ReputationDefender, another often-cited company, that helps professionals maintain a “clean” online profile.

A recent book by Ethica Publishing includes a chapter on, “Social Networking Privacy and Its Effects on Employment Opportunities” (N. Kennedy, M. Macko, “Convenient or Invasive”): “Currently, no regulations exist to protect job candidates from harassment of this sort,” Kennedy and Macko write. And yet, “41% of the 100 students surveyed actually found it ethical for employers to use social networking sites in hiring decisions, and 57% of employers thought the same.”

In marked departure from “nightmare” scenarios in the popular press and some literature, government officials I consulted in developing this memo are optimistic about social sites as a way to build and retain their workforces. Sitka, AK, hiring manager Mark Danielson uses social sites to spread word of official recruitments. Fairfield County, VA, already has official guidance for its employees using social networks in their official capacity. The U.S. State Department and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are both actively developing and legally vetting policies to promote the appropriate use of social sharing sites by their employees.

In 2007, Michael Mann (“Google Your Applicants: Prospective Employers are Increasingly Vetting Candidates’ Web Pages,” New Jersey Law Journal, June) wrote, “hiring committees would be foolish to ignore the treasure trove of information the Internet offers about prospective associates. Recruiters should pay attention to the mens rea of the potential hire, if you will. Postings that were not within the control of the student should be given far less weight in an evaluation of that person’s professional character than those that a student clearly put up on his own.

Get on Board, or Get Left Behind

In a May 2007 Harvard Business Review case study, “We Googled You,” John G. Palfrey, Jr., executive director of the BerkmanCenter for Internet & Society at Harvard Law, argues that employers must adapt to the new world of Web social sharing: “Given the trend, hiring standards will have to change, or you just won’t be able to hire great people,” he said. “The generation gap will continue to widen until the digital natives become CEOs and HR executives themselves.”

City governments can lead in this arena by developing job-applicant vetting processes that incorporates appropriate laws (the Fair Credit Reporting Act for third-party reports on applicants, and non-discrimination laws for all screenings). Cities will also need to set up official accounts for recruitments and screenings and provide training. Because literature and interviews on this subject suggest a generally haphazard approach to the use of social tools by employers, this is a chance for government to lead.

Avoiding Pitfalls through Transparency and Collaboration

San Francisco and many other U.S. cities are full of “creative class” workers with high standards and innovative working habits. Developing policies to attract and retain these employees should be an imperative for cities. New policies and acceptance of the changing nature of the urban and networked workforce must be a high priority for policymakers. We can achieve success in this area by openly sharing draft policies and seeking union partnership through the educational meetings that incorporate feedback from labor. Draft policies may be published on “wiki” sharing sites where comments can be captured and incorporated into the policy.

Objections to new policies by employees, labor leaders and privacy advocates must be met with education, transparency and a willingness to incorporate best practictes from outside experts and feedback from affected communites.

Minimal Costs, Maximum Benefit

Handled proactively, the use of social sites to expand recruitments and to vet potential candidates will save the cities from costly advertorial and job fair recruitments with a minimal up-front investment in education, policy development and training.

Practical Policy Development

A policy of this weight must be fully aired, with input from policymakers, labor and other stakeholders. However, a draft would be simple and pointed:

“The City, recognizing the changing landscape of technologically enhanced communication, hereby establishes policy goals for the use of social networking sites in the use of recruiting and vetting job candidates.

“City hiring managers will use official accounts on sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter to advertise and promote job announcements.

“The City will develop a policy to assess candidate’s strengths and weaknesses based on available online information, taking into account intentionality of content and complying with all provisions of EEO and related City laws and guidelines. This effort will comply with terms of use of individual networking sites, as well as policy guidance to enhance transparency and privacy protections. Official City accounts will not “friend” potential applicants and will access only fully public information from social networks.

“The purpose of this policy is to increase the hiring and retention of “digital natives” – computer-savvy workers who use these sites on a daily basis for life and work.

“Prior to adoption of any official policy, the City will meet with labor and other stakeholders, and will post draft policies online and at City Hall for comment”

Adriel Hampton is a journalist, Gov 2.0 and new media strategist, public servant, and licensed private investigator. He is running for U.S. Congress in the 2009 special election for California’s 10th District.

5 thoughts on “Recruiting and Vetting Job Candidates Using Social Tools

  1. Pingback: Job recruiters use social media « Charles Bush's Blog

  2. The interesting thing about the average age of government employees is what is going to happen when they start to retire. This is already happening to some degree, but since older workers are staying in the workforce longer we haven’t seen the brunt of it yet. Will there be enough people who are qualified to take their places? And as a result of older workers staying in the workforce longer will people of my generation who are interested in public sector careers be able to start such careers? Or as an article in the American Society of Public Administrator’s Journal indicated are they more and more going to graduate from MPA programs only to go in to private sector work?

    Also on the practice of googling someone to research their candidacy for a job I’d like to comment that it’s not a good practice. Primarily because throughout most of our history there has always been a separation between work and home life. Thus employers in the past have never been able to tell someone’s party habits or peer in to their personal lives (possibly breaching equal opportunity rules). What must be determined, mostly in the interview process, is whether or not a person has a sense of decorum. As we’ve seen in reports on contractors used in Afganistan and Iraq decorum should be a central issue. If someone does something wild and crazy in their private life that is one thing, but when it is in connection with their organization it’s completely another. Secondly google searching someone as a means of research is wholly useless in some cases. If someone were to google my name they would find entries for Christian rock groups, artists, and in some cases adult entertainment professionals. I am none of those things.

    Just my two cents on the some of the matters discussed.

  3. Insightful comments. I’m not sure ban on screening candidate online is going to work, which is why I think agencies need to have clear guidelines. Your first point is more frightening, as the economy realities may really hurt local and state govs that are cutting back and experiencing very low turnover just as a new generation arrives on the scene. The feds, however, are doing just fine – except for their very cumbersome hiring process.

  4. More and more people are going online. Facebook is actually reporting around 500 million users as of this comment. It’s only practical for HR managers to take a quick look at popular social networks to check out applicants. This serves as an additional tool for them.

    Roddy Acker
    Work from Home Employment Opportunities

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