Don’t Let an Algorithm Determine if You’re Worth Hiring or Not

Opinion: Online screening has skyrocketed over the last few years

Was it something he posted? cako74/iStock

What you post on social media and the strength of your personal brand will have a direct impact on your career in this industry.

Online screening has skyrocketed over the last few years. We all leave a giant footprint on the web, and organizations increasingly use that data to make important decisions about us. Our online presence now affects our ability to get into college, get a job or even get a credit card. It may sound like a black mirror episode, but it’s a reality.

No area exemplifies this shift more than the employment arena. According to a CareerBuilder study, 70 percent of employers now screen you online, up 500 percent since 2009. This means that before you even get an interview, an algorithm is sifting through every single post, tag or Google result associated with you to determine if you’re worth hiring. In fact, these human resources assessment technologies are now a $100 billion industry.

I don’t believe an algorithm should determine if you’re worth hiring. While they may save a company time, they’re often inaccurate and unfair, penalizing people for issues that aren’t their fault and rewarding people who simply fit a particular mold. This means that if you’re not proactive, you could lose opportunities you otherwise deserve.

Recently, Silicon Valley has been accused of being out of touch. As artificial intelligence threatens to replace millions of jobs and our electronic devices become increasingly invasive, Silicon Valley continues to pour billions of dollars into technologies without questioning if they do more harm than good.

We at BrandYourself believe that as it stands now, online screening is one of those technologies. We do not believe an algorithm alone should determine who is worth hiring and who isn’t. Why?

Negative Google results are often the product of cyberbullying, and that shouldn’t ruin your career: More than 50 percent of employers have turned down candidates because of negative results in Google. This is concerning, because a negative result can happen to anyone, even if it’s not your fault. Think about it. All it takes is one person—a vindictive ex, an employee you fired, a professional competitor—to go online and anonymously trash you. It happens all the time, and there is very little protecting you. In fact, most laws protect the publishers in these situations, rather than the victim.

Being targeted online can hurt your career prospects and it happens way more often than you think:

  • 73 percent of American adults have witnessed online harassment, and 70 percent of young Americans say they have been victims themselves, according to Pew Research Center.
  • Experts predict that as many as 40 percent of all Americans will be digitally shamed, according to Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Keats Citron.

This is especially concerning when you consider that cyberbullying often disproportionately affects women, who are already underrepresented in industry sectors like tech.

For example, revenge porn is one of the most extreme forms of cyberbullying, and it affects women much more often than men. In fact, according to a recent report from the Data & Society Research Institute, 6 percent of U.S. women have been victims of revenge porn (50 percent higher than the national average), and 10 percent of U.S. women have been threatened with revenge porn.

This isn’t to say that every negative Google result is the product of cyberbullying and that nobody deserves a bad reputation.

However, if a negative result is accurate, it doesn’t always reflect an individual’s full character. In a world where everything online is written in permanent ink, people deserve to tell their version of a story.

While it may be easy to ignore until it happens to you, a single event shouldn’t dictate your entire professional career.

You can have a questionable social media post and not even realize it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or even a bad employee: Scanning someone’s social media to learn more about them makes sense on the surface. Nobody wants to accidentally hire a bad egg they have to fire a few months later. However, in our experience, most online screenings don’t actually weed out bad eggs. Instead, they miscategorize people who could be great employees based off posts taken out of context.

For example, while 64 percent of employers will turn down candidates who post pictures of drinking, a study by AI company Fama found that these photos don’t actually imply bad job performance. These photos are so common that screening for them means eliminating huge swaths of people.

It’s not just drinking. According to the same study, 27 percent of employers will turn down candidates who use an “unprofessional” writing style on social media, including slang or improper grammar. The issue is that social media is social, so, unless told otherwise, most people do use slang, improper grammar, etc.

The truth is that people who post “inappropriate” things on social media often don’t realize the context in which they are posting. They’re often quoting a favorite movie, or sharing an inside joke. In other words, if they knew that their feeds were being used in a professional setting, they would behave differently. Should that disconnect lose them a job opportunity? We don’t think so.

Online screening algorithms can lead to less diverse hiring: Aside from eliminating good candidates based off misunderstood social media posts, online screening can also limit the candidate pool from a broader perspective.

Algorithms might quickly pinpoint candidates with the most polished online presences, but that doesn’t mean they’re the most qualified: It might just mean they’ve had good training. As online screening has become more mainstream, so have expensive resources to help prepare ambitious individuals willing to pay. High end companies that specialize in college prep or career placement are increasingly adding online personal branding to their repertoire. Universities are beginning to offer classes and seminars on the same topic. However, not everybody has access to these type of resources, meaning that algorithms may do a better job of signaling privilege than competence.

Some worry that the bias may be more blatant. Robert Jeffery of People Management writes, “By profiling existing high performers and applying their traits to candidates, algorithms have been found to replicate demographics, too—if your top performers are young white men, AI will pick up on behaviors and keywords that lean toward this group.”

While it’s clear this is not their intention, it just furthers our belief that online reputation resources need to be available to everybody, not just those who can afford it.

Online screening tends to reward people who are good at “personal branding,” and not necessarily the people who are best at what they do: The goal of online screening is to find the best candidates. However, it often just ends up just pinpointing the best maintained online presences. According to CareerBuilder, 61 percent of employers actively look online for information that supports a candidate’s qualifications for the job, and more than one-half won’t even consider you if they can’t find anything good.

This means that candidates who employ personal branding tactics—building a website, blogging, posting on social media, etc.—are more likely to get hired than those who are not.

Should this be the case? Some of the most talented people I know don’t have robust online presences and don’t know how to build a well-polished personal brand. This means that they could lose out on job opportunities that they’d be perfect for. It also means that an employer might miss out on the perfect hire.

This isn’t a knock on personal branding: It’s an important and excellent way to showcase your skills. We just think it’s important that everyone have the tools and knowledge to do it.

Relying on AI to determine a candidate’s hiring worth will only become increasingly more mainstream. Although it can serve as the solution to a company’s HR inefficiencies, algorithms do not have the ability to understand the many sought-after human qualities, like charisma and workplace attitude. AI is unable to capture these simply by a digital footprint.

In order to remain a competitive candidate (or even remain a candidate at all), taking pre-emptive action is key. Using an online reputation management service is a great way to be sure that your online reputation portrays you in a positive light to future employers. We all must face the fact that this is today’s reality and adjust our online etiquette accordingly.

Patrick Ambron is CEO of online reputation-management company BrandYourself.