Don’t let an algorithm determine if you’re worth hiring or not.

*This was originally posted on my personal blog**

Today we are announcing the new and improved version of BrandYourself. It’s been over two years in the making and we could not be more excited and proud. It is the most comprehensive product on the market to help individuals clean up, protect, and improve how they look online, which is more important than ever before.

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 Career Builder study, 70% of employers now screen you online, up 500% since 2009. That means, 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 HR Assessment technologies are now a $100 billion dollar industry.

At BrandYourself, we 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. As our COO Nathan Evans — an integral part of this release — put it, “If you’re not actively managing your online presence a certain way, you could lose opportunities you otherwise deserve.”

Where the old version of our product helped deal with negative Google results, our new version is much more comprehensive. It scours the entire web to help you identify and remove risk factors that could hurt your career prospects, and build a strong personal brand that helps your career.

To get a better sense of how our product works, I encourage you to watch the video above or poke around on our site and sign up!

In this article, I’ll take you through two things:

  • How this product (and BrandYourself) evolved.
  • Why this evolution is so important: Online screening can be inaccurate and unfair.

How did we get here? Some background on BrandYourself’s Evolution

We started BrandYourself as a way to deal with — what we call — the unintended consequences of the web. For all the positives the internet has brought us, it also comes with a dark side. We saw, early on, how easy it is for someone to weaponize the internet against you, oftentimes anonymously. One terrible post online, and your career could be over. We deal with these consequences on a daily basis, often in extreme forms like revenge porn .

While the horrors of being shamed online have been well documented in books like Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and Sue Sheff’s “Shame Nation” (we’re contributors), there were no online reputation management solutions that catered to individual victims. The industry catered to corporations who had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend, often using questionable techniques.

We were the first company to realize (or at least pursue) the idea that online reputation management mattered for people. When we launched 9 years ago, we focused on helping people clean up Google results since that’s where most online screening took place.

We saw how a single negative result could derail your entire career and leave you helpless, unless you were willing to blindly pay a hefty sum. We strove to make tools that not only gave the power of online reputation management to everyone, but also brought more transparency to an industry that often felt exploitive rather than empowering.

We’ve dedicated ourselves to that mission for the last 9 years. We’ve grown to almost 100 employees across two offices and over 600 thousand individuals have used our tools.

Team the night we aired on shark tank

Over the last few years, online reputation management has evolved into something that everyone needs, not just those who’ve been vindictively targeted in Google. As the data we all accumulate online gets used to screen us at every stage of our career, we need tools to help us understand that information so we’re being represented accurately.

Our newest release is just another step towards helping individuals control their online presence so they don’t lose opportunities they deserve.

Why it’s important: Online screening can be inaccurate and unfair.

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 believe — as it stands now — online screening is one of those technologies. We believe online screening can be extremely inaccurate and unfair. Why?

  • Negative Google results are often the product of cyberbullying, and that shouldn’t ruin your 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.
  • Online screening algorithms can lead to less diverse hiring.
  • Online Screening tends to reward people who are good at “personal branding” not necessarily the people who are best at what they do:

Negative Google results are often the product of cyberbullying, and that shouldn’t ruin your career:

Over 50% of employers have turned down candidates because of a negative result 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 jealous colleague–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.

  1. 73% of American adults have witnessed online harassment, and 70% of young Americans say they have been victims themselves — Pew Research Center
  2. Experts predict that as many as 40% of all Americans will be digitally shamed — Hate Crimes in Cyberspace

This is especially concerning when you consider 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 affects women much more often than men. In fact, according to a recent report from the Data & Society Research Institute, 6% of US women have been victims of Revenge Porn (50% higher than national average) and 10% of US women have been threatened with revenge porn.

This isn’t to say that every negative Google result is the product of cyberbullying, and nobody deserves a bad reputation. For example, BrandYourself doesn’t work with violent or sexual criminals who want to suppress court records.

However, we do believe that even 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, we believe people deserve to tell their version of a story.

Simply put, we don’t believe a single event should 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. More often, they mis-categorize people who could be great employees, based off posts taken out of context.

For example, while 64% 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% of employers will turn down candidates who use an “unprofessional” writing style on social media, including using slang or improper grammar. The issue is social media is social so, unless told otherwise, most people do use slang, improper grammar, etc.

The truth is, 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 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 the best 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 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 towards 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” 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 Career Builder, 61% of employers actively look online for information that supports a candidates qualifications for the job and over half won’t even consider you if they can’t find anything good.

That means 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 they could lose out on job opportunities 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, which is a big component of this new product.

Conclusion

We could not be more excited about this new release. It’s another step towards our mission to help consumers understand their own data on the web and give them back control. As we live more of our lives online, our goal is to help you navigate this world so you remain safe, informed, and in the drivers seat.