We need to start having an ethical debate over the use of web scraping and data mining within the Human Resources industry. The problem with getting started is that most people do not even know what these two things are. So here is a primer on a piece of software that I believe can take cyber stalking by a person or potential employer to a whole new level. Particularly since there are no limitations on how far back in time it can go, how long records can be kept or who can share this data.
What is data mining and web scraping?
They are the ability to gather all electronic data about a person, company or event via software. This software is available to any individual or organization and can be used by hiring staff as part of the suitability check of a candidate.
What can data scraping cover?
Anything and everything associated with your digital presence online. This includes all social media such as Facebook, Twitter and location-based services. The software can also gather data from association sites, school repositories and community events. It enables the user to create a time map of your entire life over the specified search period, all without your permission.
What are some of the concerns I see?
For a generation that has never been unplugged, every comment, joke, like and share can be confirmed, demonstrating level of maturity and affiliations. This is potentially a marketing gold mine and a privacy nightmare. Most people in this age group are willing to share more than others, but not everything will be seen as appropriate in the eyes of an employer.
Extending to all generations, this software can be used to ascertain information that cannot be legally asked in interviews. Political views, age, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, offspring and life stage are common examples. Since recruiters and leaders on hiring committees are supposed to be impartial by limiting points of view regarding suitability, this additional data becomes a contributing factor and has implications for hiring candidates.
A few exceptions, such as criminal record checks, still require confirmation by the candidate that they may be conducted. However, data scraping does not.
It provides an overview of an individual’s progress over a specified time. Yes, being able to verify they were part of the team for many years or access a digital reference check provided by the general population can bring forward good candidates. That is, if the general population approved of you and correctly referenced your contributions.
What is the potential fallout?
Things that may have been socially acceptable in the past but are no longer welcomed can come back to haunt you. Many politicians are learning this the hard way thanks to old posts, tweets and comments that damage their careers the public’s opinion of them. Currently, the media use it to track down sound bites or counterarguments from leaders in the past. The same applies to people trying to get into management, with greater scrutiny applied higher up the organization. Because the subject is unable to explain things in or out of context, anything can be used against someone, as we have begun to see in another recent digital creation: a person incorrectly represented by a meme.
For the generation now entering the workforce, the dumb fun you posted as a child could come back to haunt you. For the older generations, reflect on all those situations that were not shared with the world. Remember all those photos and memories your parents had, that you would be mortified to show your crush? Well now any potential employer can have access to them, forever. Whether it is sneaking a beer when you were under age, your fashion choices, or just bad family shots, all of it is part of what a future employer sees of you. What makes it worse is that currently there are no limitations or guidelines on how to use the software or data.
Initially, it may seem like a good idea to put strict timelines on how the software can be used. However, I know this will fail as a solution. Unless HR teams are ready to ask the age of applicants, a 10-year limit would be insufficient for a seasoned veteran of any industry to demonstrate a lifetime of experience. However, that same period could have employers factoring in elementary school recitals for teenagers looking for their first summer job.
So, I begin the debate here with four questions for which I have no clear answer: How far back into your history should an employer be allowed, using data scraping techniques? What sources are acceptable or off limits? What limits could and could not be used concerning sharing the information gathered? How can someone go about removing incorrect information about them?
Collin Bissoondatt is known in the Human Resources and Labor Relations professions around the world as Canada’s employee termination professional. As a relative newcomer to these industries, he has been a quiet complement to companies addressing complex people problems. From mass terminations to ejecting co-founding family member(s) from the business, tact and taking actions based on big picture needs give him a distinct view of whether people are treated with or without respect. Following his expansion into Australia, New Zealand and most recently the European Union, his views might predict where world economies are heading.
You will also notice he never writes about his niche services, and his reasoning demonstrates his commitment to non-disclosure agreements: “I never want a past client to feel like their situation will be material for future publications, since they could be in a vulnerable situation to public opinion. If the trials they overcome are to be shared with the public, it should be their story to tell, not mine.”