The ethical dilemma of social media snooping

This article first appeared in DNA India on 24th September, 2016.

One of the biggest challenges facing organizations is in being able to retain talent in a day and age where employees think nothing of changing jobs within months of joining a new organization. A recent study found that while even ten years ago employees took at least six months in a job before deciding whether that organization was going to fulfil their long term career aspirations, that time has now shrunk to just one and a half months. Even assumng that these numbers are more specific to the knowledge industry, the overall trend cuts across industry segments.

HR professionals and hiring managers are thus placed under enormous pressure in order to not just hire the right candidate but to also ensure that once hired, these employees stick around for as long as possible. The proliferation of hiring portals employing data to find the “right fit” is a testament to the renewed focus at organizations trying to minimize the chances of a “false positive”, a mishire. However, a more recent trend both durng and post hiring is the tendency to make use of social media data about candidates and employees. Given the number of social media channels that individuals are now part of like, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, pInterest, Quora and Github to name a few, there is a wealth of information available for even a lay person to access.

When I brought this aspect up in my own team, there was a unambiguous and vociferous consensus that making use of social media profiles about indviduals was akin to snooping on them and simply not cricket. They announced that they would refrain from joining or consider leaving organizations that would do that. However, this denouncement was selective. The consensus was that while they were against organizations digging into more personal social media like Facebook or Twitter and using that to prejudice their decision making, they were fine with and even expected organizations to look at more professional media such as LinkedIn and Github. The reasoning was that candidates and employees expected the “working world” to look into these media and that the employees were also presenting themselves to their organizations in a more professional manner.

A further probing into whether it was alright for organizations to make use of company emails to identify employee flight risk brought about some confused silence. While employees understand that company emails belong to the company to do with as it pleases, there was also some unease over the fact that those could be used to track and monitor their activities.

This dilemma is going to prop up more and more as technology pervades every aspect of our lives. A country like the USA where individual freedoms have been historically prized has had to compromise on those in the name of national security. CCTV cameras in malls and streets now attest to our every movement. I remember that when Hotmail was introduced and more so with Gmail, there was quite some disquiet about all our emails residing on servers and with those organizations having access to our innermost thoughts, as they were. A decade or two down the road, we seem to have made peace with the fact that social media companies can trawl through all our data and popup advertisements based on insights from their algorithms.

Is this too then a passing phase? Will the next generation of employees, a decade from now, find social media profiling acceptable? Are the arguments of the current generation and their attitudes against this practice simply the last flaring of the candle flame? Are we raging agains the dying of the light?

As always with ethical questions, there are grey areas and we seem to be treading ever closer to them.