When Should Employers Overlook Digital Indiscretions?

Danielle Beurteaux

promises of the internet of everythingThere are certain things most of us understand about modern life. Like that Tweets can live forever, and putting photographs of your wild partying on Facebook isn’t likely to impress employers.

For some, that’s potentially a bigger problem than for others. The U.S., both in the realms of government and corporations, is facing a shortage of cybersecurity experts.

One reason: The up-and-coming generation of experts might not be hireable.

As this piece in the Federal Times explains, there are now a couple of generations for whom Bit Torrenting and file sharing and other illegal tech activities – which very well may have been how they learned their cyber skill sets in the first place – aren’t uncommon. And those activities potentially mean they won’t be hired by a federal agency. Ironic, perhaps? As one educator explains, her students are concerned about their own job prospects, and they’re computer security students.

The F.B.I. is trying to get ahead of the game with the launch this fall of a pilot project in Pittsburgh-area high schools to teach cybersecurity skills to students for college credit (although the agency isn’t actually paying for the program). But this just isn’t a practical solution for most companies.

This is something else we know: we all have digital breadcrumbs. Is it time for employers to institute policies on how much of that breadcrumb they need to know while hiring?

More states are banning social media access by employers

Many states are removing part of that question from employers’ power. So far, 23 states (with varying degrees of stringency) have so far enacted laws that make it illegal for prospective employers to demand candidates’ social media information. However, there’s nothing stopping them from accessing what is publicly available, and if a candidate wants the job enough and feels there’s no other choice but to comply with a request for social media access, then all that legislation is for naught.

But public information is fair game. According to a recent survey, most recruiters are using social media to weed out candidates. And lest you think you’ve nothing to worry about, you might want to kick that selfie habit: a quarter of those surveyed don’t like selfies.

A potential Pandora’s Box of discrimination

Social media access further muddies the waters of potential discrimination. Companies can now access online the kind of information that will answer the questions they’re not legally allowed to ask during an interview. Among the myriad considerations is the legality of disciplining employees for their opinions and actions during their free time or while they’re on the clock. Then there’s the specter of employers, consciously or not, using social media information to discriminate against a candidate who is, for example, disabled.

It’s about trust

Part of the employer-employee relationship is predicated on trust. A company that expects to learn or monitor the details of candidates’ private lives is immediately infringing on that expectation, and sending a message from the get-go that this is business-as-usual. In other words, this is just the beginning of the unofficial background checks.

Instead, remember that employees don’t like feeling their every move is being watched. Self-expression is part of creativity, and creativity is increasingly the winning element in competitive business environments.

And any potential employer who searches hard and long enough could likely find something they don’t like about a job candidate. But then there won’t be anyone left to hire.

Learn more about the intersection of social media and recruiting in 4 Ways to Take Advantage of the Talent Ecosystem.


Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.