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Years-old posts on social media can turn thumbs down on job prospects

High-level candidates face exhaustive search of public tweets, comments, photos


March 15, 2019
By William Ehart

As you’re climbing the executive ranks, you (hopefully) are growing older and wiser, but your social media history may not be aging so well.

Now is a good time to review that history and delete or edit posts that hiring organizations might find in poor taste or downright objectionable: Someone may be looking at your profile even before you know you’re being considered for a position.

Candidates for many high-level executive jobs—once they have advanced through the interview stage—can expect a more exhaustive search by a firm using a sophisticated algorithm to catch problematic posts going back as far as seven years (as allowed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act or FCRA).

At the highest level, such a scan may go beyond you to include your family members.

“Search firms are touting how deep they can go,” said David Goch, partner at law firm Webster, Chamberlain & Bean.

“You have to be overly cautious. There isn’t really a buffer between a personal and professional account,” Goch said. “They both are accessible and (anything posted publicly is) lawfully searchable. Once it’s out there, your audience is potentially the world.” Goch often sits on the search committees of his association clients.

Search algorithms are set up to capture a variety of objectionable material including evidence of racial or religious bigotry, illegal drug use, violent ideation and—especially in the #MeToo era—sexism, misogyny or sexual harassment.

But in association executive searches, political outbursts and innocent but ill-advised photos harm candidacies most frequently, experts say.

Goch has seen candidacies torpedoed by both.

“It generally has been rash political statements or bad pictures,” he said.

In one case, a candidate for a senior communications position had a Facebook profile picture that suggested a lack of maturity, he said. Goch declined to elaborate.

Top job, deep search

While job candidates are protected by FCRA and federal and state privacy laws, many people leave a long and broad trail of publicly available information on social media. And for big jobs, search firms bring in the big guns: Companies  that may charge $10,000 or more for a comprehensive background search that includes a social media component.

New York-based investigations firm Nardello & Co. is one such company. Founder Dan Nardello is a former federal prosecutor.

“When people are up for high-profile jobs, sometimes we’re not just looking at the person, we’re looking at their family members, their spouses and in some cases children,” said COO Sabina Menschel. “I’m talking about Fortune 20 companies.”

Nardello operates within the law and therefore only has access to public posts. Menschel said executives are well advised to keep privacy settings up to date.

“People are starting to be smarter about their privacy settings,” she said.

“A lot of people at more senior levels just don’t have social media accounts,” Menschel said. “(But) we’ve had situations where people have posted inflammatory political statements or other inappropriate comments or pictures.

“It might have been five years ago when they weren’t as senior as they are now or they weren’t looking for a particular job. But again, it all depends on someone’s privacy settings. If they’re not set in a certain way, then you can access those historical things,” she said.

‘Google’ yourself

Beyond social media, jobseekers should be aware of what pops up about them in a Google search. Google Alerts is a good way to keep on top of new material about you, and Redwood City, Calif.-based company ReputationDefender also offers a free tool, CEO Rich Matta told CEO Update.

When negative or less than complimentary articles or blog posts are prominent in a Google search, ReputationDefender can put factual material about you on the web to improve your search results, Matta said.

Articles, blog posts and biographical items can be posted via Medium, Tumblr or WordPress and promoted on social media to crowd out adverse content and push it lower in Google search results.

“Typically the goal is to push negative or unwanted information down off of page one of Google because page one is where 92 percent of people stop,” Matta said. “Ninety-nine percent never go past page two. So it’s likely that if you control the narrative on the first two pages (of search results), you’re in really good shape. And it’s not always about deflecting or suppressing negative information, it also can be about putting your best foot forward.

“It can be more positive in that you aim to create a personal brand that tells the story most reflective of who you really are and positions you in the most positive light for career opportunities,” he said.

ReputationDefender’s staff includes professional writers and editors, he said.

“We write on your behalf, we promote and optimize content to appear on top of Google so that it crowds out the negative narrative that someone else has written,” Matta said.

The cost of the company’s services can range from a few thousand dollars to as high as $25,000 for an annual subscription to ReputationDefender’s flagship product, but many users find they don’t need more than a year of service at that level, he said.

‘A very big deal’

Checking social media posts is not new, but it’s more important than it used to be in the hiring process.

Social Intelligence, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based firm that uses proprietary algorithms to scan candidates’ social media and online presence, started in 2010 but has seen business boom, said Whitney Van Pelt, business development manager. The company’s services, at $35, are more affordable for use in hiring rank-and-file employees.

“Since 2016, we’ve seen a pretty significant increase in interest and users of this product just about every month,” he said. “Companies are just starting to realize that there’s so much content out there that they can’t ignore if they want to make the most informed hiring decisions.”

“This is becoming a very big deal,” said executive recruiter Ivan Adler, a principal at The McCormick Group who specializes in government affairs positions. “It definitely has cost people the chance to interview and the chance to be hired. It’s self-inflicted.”

Adler does a quick Internet and social media search before interviewing candidates.

“What we’ve found include bad comments, political things like comments about the president that are beyond the pale. It’s a judgment issue,” Adler said.

“The key with social media is that you can’t control the perception, you don’t know how somebody else is going to take it,” he said.

Julian Ha, leader of the associations practice at executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles, also said he does an informal search before interviews.

“I want to know that there’s nothing lurking in the background that I should be aware of,” he said. “Things like the use of expletives raise a question about judgment but also suitability for a position because you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve. It could make it harder to step into a position and be an effective advocate.”

Unless you proactively remove unwise posts, they will live on in infamy.

“It’s for life, right?” Ha said. “Social media is like a diamond, it’s forever.”