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Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

The digital age has truly become a playground for the recruiting industry in terms of our ability to find information. Pre-internet, there was an entire research industry dedicated to providing recruiting agencies with background information on potential candidates, including names, ages and a sliver of insight into what those people did for a living. It was a lengthy and expensive process. Today, as a skilled research amateur, I can personally find equivalent information in a concerted hour or two in front of my computer, and often for free.

We are all out there: our professional information can be found on LinkedIn, our personal lives on Facebook, our opinions crystallized on Twitter, our wants and desires on Pinterest, and our biases anonymized (sometimes badly) on reddit and 4chan. Whitepages will tell ages and marriage details, while Instagram makes birthdays and anniversaries clear. And, if you think Snapchat isn’t data mining your information, I’d say you’re naïve. It’s all out there for anyone with the time and inclination to look. This is a recruiter’s playground.

I’ve outlined in a previous blog how digital access to all of this information has made recruiters lazy. That’s because a large preponderance of professionals in our industry don’t go much beyond exploiting this access to contact information. They become direct email purveyors, spamming inboxes with undifferentiated messaging to the same effect and results of a credit card campaign. However, there’s a small subset of search professionals who really know how to take this data and create personalized messaging that resonates with their target audiences. They are the ones who win for their clients and get the hard-to-get, high-potential candidates. They are the ones who anticipate how the digital world is changing the recruiting industry and effectively use the available toolsets or create new ones in response.

But, when do we as an industry go too far? When does the use of publicly available information on potential candidates move from the realm of clever to creepy? There is a ton of useful information you can pick up on a potential candidate on their personal profiles (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) that can help in crafting a message to them. However, when that person put it out there, they may not necessarily be thinking about how a personal social media post might be examined though a recruiter’s professional lens. So, when we decide to use that information, there’s a risk that it can move the conversation from clever (“That’s great that this person has taken time to know something about me.”) to creepy (“WTF, how does this guy know so much about me?!?”).

To keep the conversation safe but interesting, here are a few rules that I have established for myself.

What’s in bounds:

• LinkedIn
• Personal blogs
• Quotes in publications
• Public speaking engagements
• Philanthropic/Non-profit leadership activities

These are all sources where individuals display their public personas in a professional setting. In my mind, if a recruiter is not data mining these sources on a candidate, they are not doing their job. Think of the high potential CFO: she receives calls and emails from recruiters every day, most of which sound and look alike with similar subject lines and opening paragraphs. She could easily exchange one for another and usually dismisses all of them. However, if the subject line is personalized to highlight a non-profit on whose board the CFO sits or references a quote from a speech he or she just gave, the recruiter has given the CFO a reason to read on. He or she cleared the first hurdle in garnering the CFO’s interest and starting a dialogue. These tools provide a good recruiter with great information that potential candidates knowingly make publicly available.

What’s out of bounds (or at least in the gray area):

• Facebook
• Twitter
• Pinterest
• Instagram

Depending on context, these are sources where individuals may display their private persona. The audience is generally comprised of friends and family. And, unless executives have made it clear they’re posting content related to their professional endeavors, they may not expect it to be viewed in a professional context. However, for a recruiter, it’s still out there. Based on my own experience, I usually don’t use this information explicitly when contacting a potential candidate. I don’t use nicknames, ask if they enjoyed their recent trip to Aruba, or talk about how cute their Goldendoodle is. They are more likely to be taken aback than be impressed by the thoroughness of your research. While it may not be more difficult to find their personal views on Facebook than their professional views on LinkedIn Pulse, you run the risk of moving from an interested recruiter to a creepy guy who hangs out in the 7-Eleven parking lot.

I still collect the information available on these sites, but I think it’s wiser to use it as preliminary research. For example, if I have a C-level role in Chicago, I can learn from a potential candidate’s LinkedIn profile that he went to Stanford and has always worked in Northern California. In addition, I can see from his Facebook page that his family lives in the local area as well. With this combined information, I can surmise that he’s going to be a tough get and that I may want to direct my efforts elsewhere. Conversely, if I can glean from LinkedIn that he went to the University of Chicago and, while he works in Northern California now, he started his career at P&G in the Midwest, and Facebook is full of his youngest kid’s high school graduation pictures, he then moves to the top of my target list. I just won’t start the conversation congratulating him on his son’s graduation.

If I have any words of wisdom for a recruiter looking to effectively leverage the opportunities presented by the digital age, it’s this: with information comes responsibility. Just because you have access to troves of personal data on candidates, doesn’t mean you have to use it. However, there’s a tremendous amount of information out there that a potential candidate wants his professional colleagues to see that the recruiting industry isn’t leveraging. When it comes to mining data – let’s use the surface water before we dig the well. So, when you’re about to address Elizabeth as Lisa in your intro email because that’s how she refers to herself on Facebook, take a step back and think how you would feel if someone called you Jay instead of John when you know only family members do that with you. A little creepy, huh?

One Response

  1. This is a good summary of what’s in and out of bounds. The “creepy” example made me laugh. Thank you for the perspective and a glimpse of how you operate.

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