Cybervetting refers to the use of online information such as Facebook posts, LinkedIn profiles, and Google searches to evaluate job candidates. In roughly 7 out of 10 workplaces in the US, human resource (HR) professionals and other individuals involved in hiring use cybervetting to get to “know a person” beyond information provided on a resume. But what are cybervetters really attempting to learn, what inferences do they make, and what does any of this have to do with how a candidate will perform on the job?
Proponents of cybervetting often frame the activity as a means to reduce hiring risks and maximize “culture fit” between new hires and the organization. However, recent research based on interviews with HR professionals shows that its main use is to evaluate job candidates’ moral character. Cybervetters use ambiguous digital signals like photos to make broad inferences about individual character and lifestyle choices.
Cybervetting seeks to evaluate job candidates’ conformity with—or deviation from—social norms associated with idealized workers. For example, when HR professionals express a preference for online profiles that depict “an active lifestyle,” “going on hikes,” or love of skiing, they set up an implicit moral standard: job candidates are expected to engage in and display the correct lifestyle. Usually, the associated activities are irrelevant to performance in the jobs for which candidates are applying. Nonetheless, deviations from ideal worker norms are penalized and can lead to discriminatory hiring outcomes, as when preferred “active” lifestyles are associated with white, youthful, middle- and upper-class individuals who lack disabilities.
The downside of cybervetting also shows up in the search for “red flags,” which are online indicators of deviant and potentially problematic behaviors. The most commonly cited red flag is a photo of a person drinking an alcoholic beverage. Deviant acts such as this call into question how job candidates might disrupt the moral order of the workplace. In addition, evaluators often use hypothetical scenarios to imagine how red flag activities might impede candidates’ professional performance.
Ironically, while cybervetting is pitched as a means to better “know” a job candidate, online self-presentation is one of its most common selection criteria. Whether or not a worker is required to interact with the public, job candidates are expected to carefully curate their online profiles. For example, even at companies that host employee happy hours, HR staff may view social media images of drinking as highly problematic. This ultimately undercuts claims of using cybervetting to reveal authentic personal selves. Instead, it makes online profile management an entirely new criteria for employment.
The criteria used to evaluate job candidates via cybervetting can have numerous negative consequences for work organizations. Cybervetting can lead to legal challenges due to concerns about inequitable hiring practices. Screening job candidates based on cybervetting can also lead to an increasingly homogenous workforce, which has been shown to negatively impact creativity and profit margins. Furthermore, cybervetting is perceived by most workers as an invasion of privacy, leading to doubts about the procedural justice of organizations that practice it and a tendency to avoid applying to them.
How cybervetting is used in organizations depends on their mission, capacity, and resources. HR staff in non-profit and government organizations are the most skeptical of cybervetting because of concerns that it may reduce equitable hiring and promote privacy invasion. Organizations that emphasize efficiency and profit-making tend to be more open to cybervetting. HR professionals in third party recruitment and staffing agencies are the most enthusiastic practitioners of cybervetting, as these types of organizations are largely shielded from its negative consequences.
Organizations can surmount these problems. First, organizational leaders must take responsibility for managing cybervetting and its consequences. This is not the responsibility of job seekers, who may be unaware of whether their online information is perused, how it is evaluated in the present or future, and how they are helped or disadvantaged as a result. Furthermore, advice provided to jobseekers will often be contradictory. For instance, some cybervetters seek authentic selves, while others look for cultivated and censored profiles; some see profile pictures as a must, while others avoid them out of concern for discrimination.
Second, if organizational leaders and HR staff choose to engage in cybervetting, they should consider how the online information they use to evaluate job candidates relates to specific tasks involved in their jobs. Instead of using hypothetical scenarios to rationalize choices based on cybervetting after the fact, criteria of evaluation should be developed up front and then applied consistently.
Finally, organizational leaders should question whether cybervetting is useful rather than assuming it is. What are the risks? What are the goals? How can the actual contributions and limitations of this practice be gauged, and how do they measure up? In short, they should approach cybervetting with skepticism and a critical eye. If organizational leaders are not willing to address these difficult questions head on, then cybervetting is best avoided.