Hiring has always been about managing incomplete information. Even the most exhaustive, high-stakes search processes can have embarrassing gaps. Recruiting is still about making good decisions with imperfect information, but the important unknowns are changing. Between widely available public records, social media streams, and massive data breaches, it's probably best to assume that no one has any secrets anymore.
About one in three companies already screen candidates' social media presence. Candidates, in turn, are learning how to manage their public faces and easily accessible facts. A cottage industry of research options has cropped up for candidates who want to know more about a potential employer, and employers have more information at their fingertips than they can legally use.
The dramatic shift in secrecy and transparency is changing the way both candidates and employers think about the recruiting process. Here's a quick survival guide for the new reality:
1. Over the long term, fewer surprises lead to better outcomes.
Nobody wins when a job match is a genuinely terrible fit for some reason that could have been easily avoided. Whether it's someone faking credentials, or joining a work environment that is not a good fit for their style or personality, the financial and opportunity costs are real and substantial. Transparency particularly benefits candidates, who can better understand a workplace from testimonials (anonymous and otherwise) easily located online.
"You know what you're buying into before you get there. You can see telltale signs of a company's culture and how its people operate," says Wendy Murphy, managing director and head of the human capital practice at RSR Partners.
2. Expect a spike in scrutiny for senior positions.
High-profile mistakes will, hopefully, dwindle in number and severity.
"In C-suite recruiting, what used to be a few phone calls is already now about digging up 26 different references," Murphy says.
Expect scrutiny to ratchet even tighter in short order. In the month of October alone, a whisper campaign of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein exploded and drove him from his own company. Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) withdrew from his nomination to the top job at the National Drug Control Policy after reports surfaced about his past legislative activity.
Even in the latter case, in which Marino's activity was a matter of public record and legal, it wasn't until reporting and activism connected the dots on both that they had career-altering impact.
3. Fair or not, transparency isn't completely equal.
Accept that transparency is asymmetrical. Candidates can research as much as they want about a potential employer, and cannot legally be held to account for declining an interview or a job offer.
Employers, on the other hand, have greater resources at their disposal. Artificial intelligence and data mining recruiting tools don't get bored or tired; they can keep digging until they find anything and everything about a candidate.
Employers who might be concerned that their use of data is getting out of hand can follow a simple rule of thumb: don't look for any information you would be reluctant to explain to an auditor, regulator, or courtroom.
4. Context matters.
The context you use to introduce what you know (or don't know) about a candidate can be just as important as the research itself.
"If you can use information which might not quite be secret, but isn't plainly obvious, as a way of bridging a gap rather than being confrontational, that should be beneficial," says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of College Recruiter.
That distinction can be as simple as knowing the difference between discussing shared interests (beneficial) and commenting on vacation fashion choices (best avoided).
5. The pendulum may swing, but greater transparency is the overall trend.
A regulation-light, business-friendly federal administration will likely promote even greater transparency in the months and years to come, and that means one consequence for everyone in the process: the need to be active in controlling your own story.
"The only way to succeed is to be totally honest about your positive and negative attributes, company and individual," says Dave Arnold, president of the search firm Arnold Partners. "The truth is going to come out."