Should your digital self be part of your job interview?

More from Gemma Milne, Science & Technology Writer; Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt

You only have to turn on the news to see that personal data is a hot topic. The personality test created by Cambridge Analytica, powered by Facebook data, has prompted many to consider both the global effect of such easily accessed information, as well as their own feelings around how much of themselves is open for the taking.

Beyond the ethics around using personal data for political gain, there are many companies, organisations and teams within them using this information every day to make decisions many might not quite realise. We can talk about insurance companies making judgements on your health to create your risk factor, or advertising agencies targeting products to your interests, but what about HR departments?

The practice of hiring is a balance of art and science — psychometric tests and team building exercises are considered fair enough assessments of a person’s compatibility with particular types of work; and those put in charge of hiring are usually those who are adept at reading interpersonal skills and investigating personal motivations.

The act of judging, and deciding what you feel and think about a person, previously only happened in particular settings — on paper, in an interview and through other people’s recommendations. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, and with Facebook profiles, LinkedIn CVs and endless spots online for blogs and comments, you really do have no control nowadays over when and where that first impression is made.

We all know that when we apply for a job, we’ll be Googled. And surely if we are comfortable openly sharing information about ourselves on the internet, said information is fair game for anyone to look at and pass judgement. If we are prepared to share our ideas, our photographs, our history and our dreams with anyone who’ll listen, as opposed to a select few behind a private profile, then what’s to stop a potential employer from stumbling upon them — and making judgement — just like any regular person? After all, we’re all human; and that’s what humans do.

There’s the simple attributes which are illegal for companies to judge in the hiring process — gender, race and age. All of which can easily be found after one quick online search. Of course — when you go in for an interview, this information is immediately obvious, but what happens when unconscious bias creeps in before the screening has even taken place? You can’t help but judge unconsciously, it’s in our nature, and social media does much to enhance that bias, maybe even by accident, earlier in the hiring process.

And what about historical content — comments and photographs from a previous version of yourself? Does your behaviour as a 15-year-old teenager online truly depict your behaviour as an adult, and is it fair to assume people don’t really change? At what age, or from how many months before the application was made, can HR execs fairly investigate and judge a candidate?

But beyond the logical concerns surrounding unconscious bias and people’s ability to change in life, there’s a bigger question at play: has social media fundamentally changed how we as humans make judgements upon one another?

We’ve all made up our mind about someone based on their words online. We’ve all had an emotional reaction to a photograph or an opinion, which adds another layer to our thoughts and feelings about another. We’ve all looked at which mutual connections we have with someone who’s added us on LinkedIn to work out what type of group they fit into, and how legitimate they really are. We’ve all decided how intelligent, how empathetic, how ambitious, how successful, how stable someone is from even the sort of things they don’t write themselves, but simply retweet.

We’ve all been scuppered and confused and concerned when we’ve tried to find out information about someone online and are met with very little.

There is so much more information to go on now when deciphering another human being, and we’re using our past experiences online to make these seemingly fair judgements, while also being acutely aware that Facebook is only 14 years old. Thousands of years of evolution have helped us instinctively react to people, and read their subtle behaviour. Society hasn’t had enough time to truly work out the correlation between online persona and real world human.

And yet, we are judging people from their online shadow. We are telling ourselves that information is power, and knowing more can only lead to a better picture. On the other hand, we know that what we see online isn’t always as it seems. We talk about the fitness Instagrammers who aren’t actually as happy as their profile suggests, and psychological studies have proven — both off- and on-line — that an individual’s behaviour in an anonymous mob isn’t actually indicative of what they’re like on their own in the real world.

Judging people is a natural human instinct, but we must be aware that social media is skewing what might be our better judgements. Questioning our gut reaction is a difficult thing to do — but we must accept that sometimes our gut can be wrong, and relying on it to make life choices for another human being isn’t always fair. As we move into an age where anyone being hired will bring with them an entire lifetime of digital information, finding ways to naturally judge artificial subtleties will become more crucial.