We welcome John Sumser to these pages.
By Elliot Clark
It is with mixed emotions that we say farewell to long time HRO Today technology columnist Naomi Bloom. Her monthly contributions showed a deep knowledge of HR software and its application, combined with humor and wisdom. Her decision to move on was based on a desire to reduce her time commitments for this kind of writing project in favor of more fun pastimes. So as Naomi sails into the sunset (no I am not kidding, she really bought a boat a few months ago), we welcome John Sumser to our team as the Contributing Editor for Technology. Sumser has a long track record as a thought-leader in the HR technology arena and will be writing for us as well as helping us break new ground. (Stand by for an announcement.)
He has worked in many capacities, from digging ditches and building railroads to selling cameras, training engineers, writing code, and negotiating NATO contracts. His breadth of experience both as an employee and an employer has given him the ability to understand the nature of work, how and why people work, what makes a good people decision and how technology can be used to support the people, the work, and the decisions.
Sumser has also been on the cutting edge of how the internet and technology affect work and human resources. He became interested in the Internet in its embryonic stages when he ran R&D projects in the defense industry. Darpanet was the precursor to today’s World Wide Web.
In 1994, Sumser started Interbiznet, where he wrote a daily column (for more than a dozen years) about using the Internet and technology for recruiting and HR, as well as a survey of global employment news and trends. His ideas have been the catalyst for dozens of new companies and countless MBA student papers.
After selling Interbiznet in 2006, Sumser was the editor of Recruiting.com, where he helped guide the fledgling online community. He continues to experiment with aspects of the technical, media, and communications environment that is the HR industry. In 2008, he toured the United States, producing 15 regional trade shows.
He also regularly consults with recruiters and employers on how to find, hire and keep the best employees, how people work, how companies and systems affect employees, and how changing economies and technology alter the nature of work itself. One of Sumser’s current areas of interest is how the cultural differences between the generations are changing the workplace. He introduced this idea last year to the top 500 employers in Canada in 2007, where he jokes that Al Gore was his warm-up act. (Gore was a fellow presenter, but we fear the claim that Gore opened for Sumser is hot air, and that contributes to global warming…) Recently, Sumser launched a new web-based magazine called the HRExaminer.
We are excited to have Sumser on board and we hope you enjoy his insights.
For my first column, the editors asked me to cover the emerging trends, technologies, and issues in background checks and pre-employment screening. I thought hazing had been banned. The screening and assessment business is a thicket of contradictory regulations, capabilities, prejudices, and opportunities to create lawsuits. Technology doesn’t change this.
When an employment lawyer started explaining all of the exceptions, applications, and exclusions recently, all I could think was “I’m glad I avoided law school.” One expert assured me that every background check should contain a criminal records search: “3.5 million people in the workforce were on parole or probation,” he said. “You’ve got to always make sure you know if you’re dealing with one of them.”
That’s fine. But California law prohibits the evaluation of a criminal record in the process of hiring someone. The quagmire of confusion can often make a very conservative approach look attractive. As a result, HR leaders outsource the background check and can only hope that their vendor is competent.
The sum total of online information that can be collected about individuals is often referred to as the social graph. This information is routinely bought and sold for marketing purposes. Aggressive new applicant tracking systems couple this treasure trove of information with candidate data in order to inform hiring decisions.
A pure outsourcing strategy made good sense before there was Google, Facebook, or the newer services that mine the social graph. It is increasingly ineffective to try to wall parts of your organization off from the data that flows online. The problem arises because it’s very easy to discover “protected” information much earlier in the hiring process.
As recently as 10 years ago, the interview was the first time you discovered that a candidate was pregnant, black, disabled, wore a wedding ring, female, tall, short, hairy, or any combination thereof. Once the person made the shortlist, potential discrimination could be fairly well controlled. Today, things are different.
The legal problem is that the system presumes that if you had access to information that could be used to discriminate, you used it. On the other hand, being a Raider’s fan, the propensity to dress in gorilla suits, the love of garlic fries, or a fondness for Hitchcock are all perfectly good reasons to choose or exclude a candidate from the next step in hiring. The lawyers want to make Facebook off limits. Smart hiring authorities want to know.
Approaches Being Tested
• The background checking team is kept in a clean room with no access to the social graph.
• A “nod, nod, wink, wink” policy forbids use of the social graph in writing, but is accepted as long as there is no record. (This is the most likely approach to get you in trouble.)
• A “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach maintains no policy and involves no documentation.
• A training-intensive approach encourages background checkers to prepare dossiers that help weed out liability while discovering real talent. These dossiers are screened for “protected” information before they are given to decision makers.
The genie is out of the bottle. Much of the legislation in this area comes from a time before the data tsunami. Smart HR decision makers need to take practical steps to make peace with the shifting ground. Here are three suggestions:
• If you use Facebook data to disqualify a candidate (say they have dozens of photos of themselves drunk at work), take screenshots and make them a part of the record. It’s a moving target;
• Have procedures in place for the cases when background checkers are exposed to “protected” information; and,
• Keep analytics that examine whether your hiring system results in bias and constantly work to improve.
It is getting ever more difficult to distinguish between data and technology. Background checking emerged in a time when the only information you could get was on paper, and somebody had to go get it. While lots of public data is still collected that way, we are entering a new era. The next generation of problems will involve having too much data to make a decision.
John Sumser is a technology consultant, trade show producer, and webmaster of HRExaminer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.