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Staffing Management: Seeking Secrets in Cyberspace

Steve Taylor   7/1/2006
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Staffing Management, July - Sept  2006

 Vol. 2, No. 3

 To surf or not to surf when checking candidates, that can be the question.

Using Internet search engines such as Google, web logs (“blogs”) and other online means to check out the background of employment candidates has become commonplace—but such searches are not without their risks.

“There’s not a candidate I present whose name isn’t ‘Googled’ by any organization that considers hiring them or even interviewing them,” says Ivan H. Adler of the McCormick Group, an executive search consulting firm in Arlington, Va. “It’s the very first thing.”

Most search consultants say the biggest reason to do such research is that, if you don’t, someone else will.

“You can assume when a candidate is put forward that others will look at what is out in the public domain,” says Nancy DeKoven, director of programs and membership at the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) in New York. “It makes sense to know what is there.”

Another reason to conduct online research on a candidate is to make sure you have accurate information. Given recent scandals involving prominent executives who falsified their credentials and a heightened emphasis on workplace security in general, DeKoven says, “People are taking the time to do complete background checks. The environment in the last four to five years has highlighted the need to do this.”

The advantage of using Google and other search engines is their ability to retrieve information on potential employees from “as far back as high school,” says Tal Moise, CEO of Verified Person, a New York background screening firm. “Media checks are most valuable when an individual is likely to be a public face to your organization.”

There’s no doubt that online research can help uncover information about candidates. However, experts say recruiters not only need to consider the relevance and credibility of this information but also must use it responsibly.

Finding Negatives

“We tend to find other, past employments [that were] not disclosed,” says Moise. Typically, a recruiter will find “a press release put out by a company that’s not listed on the applicant’s resume.” In such cases, he notes, the reason the candidate has for leaving that particular job “is usually not a positive one.” Sometimes, Moise says, “we find something to confirm red flags.”

“[Employers] want to know what has been said about this person, what’s out there,” Adler notes. “They’re not going down and dirty into blogs or MySpace but into general media, print and broadcast, popular media and trade press.”

Employers also want to know what the applicant has said or done—or has not said or done. Once in a while, says Leslie Sorg Ramsay, also of McCormick Group, recruiters doing background checks find that an article the candidate claims to have written can’t be found on any available search engine.

Sometimes, recruiting professionals using various online employment sites, such as Craig’s List, Monster, CareerBuilder and HotJobs, will find contradictory resumes from the same candidate.

Some searches may reveal more-troubling information than just omitted job positions. “I found a drunk-driving conviction,” says Cheryl Bedard of the McCormick Group. “It showed up in a police blotter on a local newspaper [site]. The candidate confirmed it and never called me again,” she relates.

“For CFOs, I look for the ugly underbelly,” she continues. If an executive’s previous employer went out of business, for example, she asks herself if the executive might have been responsible for poor management decisions.

“Episodes of fiduciary irresponsibility [may involve] officers and also board members,” says Bedard’s colleague Susan Schlather. And a scandal in one city may not have appeared in news media elsewhere. “You must check every available avenue for anything written.”

Tell-All Blogs

Sometimes, recruiters find that the applicant does the writing.

Verified Person’s Moise recalls a blog that turned up information about an applicant who had been voicing all of his issues with his current employer about a particular manager.

On his site, recruiting strategist Shally Steckerl observes that searching for engineers “results in a bunch of personal pages and blogs where people make first-person comments about where they work.”

Staffing Management used online search engines to research one well-known corporation and was directed, via MySpace, to the blog of a young man writing critical comments about his employer amid descriptions of his love life.

“When employees talk about previous employers online,” Moise says, “future employers [should consider whether they would be treated with] the same level of discretion.” Schlather suggests that employers ask themselves: “Why should I hire someone who would vilify his employer in public?”

How do search consultants assess applicants’ descriptions of their love life or other behavior on primarily social sites like MySpace or Facebook? “Their only relevance is when the individual brings aspects of work life online that would cause questions about morals or thought processes,” Moise says. Bedard adds that she has “never looked at personal blogs or web sites.”

However, it’s not necessary to visit those sites to be referred to their contents. Moise acknowledges that some search engines already collect information from these sites via their “spiders”—web-trolling programs that feed sites to search engines. And attorney Cheryl Behymer, who specializes in labor and employment law at Fisher & Phillips in Columbia, S.C., says, “On an occasional basis with a high-level position, a client will do a Google or Yahoo! search and there’s the potential to kick into a MySpace/Facebook-type [site]. ... But [employers are] hesitant to rely on that type of information.”

Quality of Information

As anyone with a computer knows, wandering the web can be a big time-waster. In applicant searches, often it yields nothing. Behymer says it’s quicker to go through traditional background checkers. Moise agrees: “It’s not part of normal packages we advise. It’s not very efficient and is relatively costly.”

Ramsay adds that because online research is labor-intensive, some companies will do it only for certain hires.

For example, “Major companies are conducting background checks on salaried employees, but not hourlies,” says Shawn Boyer, CEO of, a Richmond, Va., firm that helps companies hire hourly workers.

In addition to being time-consuming and costly to find, information gathered online often doesn’t have a high level of credibility, Behymer points out.

“It is important to remember that not everything in the public domain is fact,” agrees DeKoven, who adds that even a questionable allegation “leads you to ask certain questions and to clarify the areas in which you want further information.”

Says Bedard, “It has to be more than Google. [Staffing professionals] have to do proper and thorough referencing.” Too often, she claims, prospective employers are looking for reasons to validate decisions they’ve already made. “So the stuff they care about is what flies in the face of their decisions or supports them.”

Adler says that collecting information on a candidate is only the first step; recruiters then need to be able to evaluate what they find and search for reliable patterns. “You find me a candidate, I can find you three people who say he’s great and three who say he’s bad. The question is, how do you synthesize that information and put it into context?” he says.

To Surf or Not To Surf

Ironically, recruiters run the risk of learning too much about an applicant—that is, too much information that they wouldn’t normally be asking for or have access to, according to attorney Behymer. There are details that could be revealed by a web search that responsible employers would not consider when making hiring decisions, such as age, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

She cites a Supreme Court decision (see “Too Much Knowledge Can Be a Litigious Thing,” right) involving an employee who was not rehired following treatment for substance abuse. “He brought an Americans with Disabilities Act suit, saying he was discriminated against because of his previous problem. The case hinged on whether the [employer] knew about the problem.”

“From a discrimination perspective,” Behymer concludes, “an employer could be in danger of acquiring too much information from [Internet] sources.”

On the other hand, a staffing professional who misses or ignores warning signs before an employee is hired risks having the inconvenient details becoming known afterward, perhaps embarrassing a company executive who proposed the candidate. Even worse, the dirt may be dug up by a competitor, or by someone else in the organization.

“People’s nature is to Google,” says DeKoven. “That information will come out, [and] others may use it. A search consultant needs to have investigated it to the degree possible and to inform the company, in its decision-making, of this issue.”

Before someone else does.

Steve Taylor broadcasts the news on the ABC Radio Networks.

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 Too Much Knowledge


Can Be A Litigious Thing

The potential dangers of knowing too much are shown in Raytheon Co. v. Hernandez, a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In 1991, Joel Hernandez, a longtime employee of the Hughes Missile Systems plant (which was later acquired by Raytheon), tested positive for cocaine and admitted that his behavior violated the company’s rules. He was forced to resign.

Two years later, having completed a treatment program, he applied to be rehired, attaching to his application letters from his pastor recounting his active church participation and from a 12-step addiction program counselor telling of his regular attendance at meetings and his recovery.

The labor relations department employee who reviewed and rejected his application testified that the company had a policy against rehiring anyone fired for workplace misconduct. Hernandez sued under the provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits discrimination against alcohol and drug abusers who are in a treatment and recovery phase. Despite the attached letters, the employee claimed that she did not know Hernandez was a former drug addict when she rejected the application.

“The case hinged on whether they knew about the problem,” says attorney Cheryl Behymer, who specializes in labor and employment law at Fisher & Phillips in Columbia, S.C. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to determine if the company’s knowledge of the addiction was the reason Hernandez was not rehired; if so, he could sue for discrimination. In 2004, the appeals court declared that there was sufficient prima-facie evidence for the case to go to trial.

The parties settled out of court later that year.


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