Job Candidate Screening Confronts the Limits of Privacy


By now it’s a truth universally acknowledged (apologies to Jane Austen) that when looking for a new job, step #1 for any candidate is to clean up social media accounts.

If potential employers visit a candidate’s Facebook profile, they might not be so impressed to see a photo of last weekend’s keg stand contest.

But as the data that are available online proliferate, and more information becomes accessible on each individual, the less obvious digital trail they leave behind could inadvertently offer clues to their professional behavior. A new company called Fama Technologies is betting onOpens a new window  a market that needs its AI-driven software to scour the web for red-flag behavior of potential candidates.

Fama offers a candidate screening that assesses all publicly available information, including social media, news articles and comments section as well as chat forums to identify behavior that could indicate hidden biases or potentially toxic behavior. Comments that reflect prejudice, including racism or misogyny, as well as activity such as drug use and violence, flag a potential candidate for review.

The company already screens 20,000 people per month and increasingly there has been a demand by business for Fama to run screenings on existing employees. ScreeningsOpens a new window on their own are nothing new, but if you are thinking about using an AI-driven program there are a few things to keep in mind.

Fast internet, slow life

It sometimes seems that the pace of life has increased with the internet as information becomes instantly accessible and communication is instantaneous.

But the fact is, life has remained the same pace, and people grow and change at almost the same speed they always have. While running a program on someone’s online behaviorOpens a new window could offer insight into said person’s character, people learn and develop. The person who left a sexist comment on a photo five years ago might might have seriously changed by the time he or she applies for a position. A snapshot of someone’s online self might pinpoint their flaws, but almost everyone has them.

It’s more valuable to see how the person is now.

It’s not the job of a workplace to police employee behavior. In theory, as long as an employee is respectful and equitable in the workplace and fulfills stated responsibilities, it’s no business of an employer whether that person makes crude jokes outside work or takes drugs.

To make the example even more extreme: It doesn’t concern a business if an employee commits a crime. That might sound controversial when applied to something like murder, but think about a traffic violation. In either case, it’s the business of the judicial system to take care of it. As long as an office has clear rules and goals in a culture where the principles are plainly stated — and an employee abides by them — it shouldn’t matter if that person has less sound judgement when not on the clock.

The public, public sphere

As is often the case, it’s best to maintain clear guidelines and complete transparency regarding acceptable actions in the workplace — and that includes principles about non-interference in employees’ personal lives. Upholding the right of employees to live outside work without the scrutiny of their employers is an important policy.

At the same time, the internet has become the public sphere and it’s particularly important for people working at tech companies to be aware of the impression they can give. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t remind employees of the potential for their being brand ambassadors for the company at every point that they’re in the public sphere, without necessarily policing that sphere.