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Colborn’s Corner: What life is there outside work?


Quentin Colborn HR professionals admit to searching social networking sites to gain a deeper insight into potential employees. Does this tell us that HR staff have time on their hands to go fishing, or is this the new reality of recruitment? Quentin Colborn discusses what is fair game in recruitment and selection.

A recent survey of almost 1,000 HR practitioners and business managers by people search website, found that one-third admit to searching social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to find out more about candidates during the recruitment process.

Seems funny in a way, looking back, that the topic of work-life balance considered how much of individuals’ time should be available for work and how much should be left for personal lives. The popular concern was that work was intruding too much into personal time with the consequent impact on quality of life. What we now have is a digital environment where, of their own volition, individuals are potentially merging their personal and work lives.

“Employers will trawl the press for details of convictions so what is different to trawling the internet for information?”

So should HR professionals use digital sources to support recruitment, and potentially, disciplinary decisions? To my mind, the underlying question to this is ‘how much is private behaviour likely to reflect itself in work-related behaviour?’ At one end of the spectrum we tend to take some clear views on criminality with many employers refusing to take on staff with a criminal record – I’m not saying that should be the case, but it is frequently the case.

Whether the information comes from the printed word or digitally, that is a clear example of personal life intruding into work life. In some cases employers will trawl the press for details of convictions so what is different to trawling the internet for information?

Socially I think it is interesting to consider why people wish to provide so much personal information for others to read. Is it a 21st century form of exhibitionism? Do I really want to know that someone has been to the gym three times today or that Freddie has made a snowman?

Perhaps the use of the internet as a communication tool simply mirrors the huge growth in communication by mobile phone and other portable devices. But to what end? Are our lives actually better for this increased communication?Somehow I doubt it; we may know more but perhaps people feel less understood than previously.

So is Facebook (and all the other versions) fair game for recruiters? Well, if people put their life story into open publication can they really complain when it is actually read? Ironically much of the information will remain unread in any case – even by those it is targeted towards!

“If people put their life story into open publication can they really complain when it is actually read?”

But if a potential recruit paints a picture of themselves as a socially irresponsible individual in their private life, surely that is of relevance to a potential employer; in the same way the astute job hunter will research potential employers to see if the culture, style and ethos are what they are looking for. If potential recruits do their research on blogs and the like, why should employers not do the same?

If we accept it is not unreasonable for employers to glean information on potential recruits, then who is to do this? In some ways it sounds quite an attractive job for someone spending all day trawling social networking sites – from my experience many employers are very experienced at doing this already. Unfortunately it is not their job to do so! In reality I foresee this type of activity outsourced to companies that specialise in this work – so there will be no excuse for the HR officer caught on Facebook during working time!

Does your organisation delve into people’s private lives? If so, are there any criteria for going about it? How would you feel if you discovered you had been ‘researched’? Non fussed or feel that your human rights had been abused? Let us have your views on this increasingly important topic.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or email: [email protected]. For more information, visit:

One Response

  1. fair game
    If the individual has posted their details then it is fair game
    I am still not convinced it adds much value to know that someone is now single/ fed up. occasionally drunk but perhaps these people cannot do proper interviews so resort to forming views digitally
    I am less happy about people’s details turning up on other people’s pages as this is beyond their control and not fair game
    Good article

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