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Before firms use 'Facebook score' to screen applicants, stop the insanity

You already have an "insurance score." You have an "Employment Credit Score."  There's even a "MedFICO," which attempts to predict whether you’ll actually pay your doctor’s bills.  Now that a "Facebook score" has been invented,  I expect a "Grocery Habits score" and a "Music Taste" score to arrive any time now.

These scores probably hurt you more than help you, and in ways that are kept secret from you.  To borrow a phrase from today's big pop-culture story, American businesses are suffering from "Score-sanity."  And you are suffering the consequences.

In case you missed it, researchers at three U.S. colleges say they've figured out a way to predict future job success by scoring applicants' Facebook profile pages. This wasn't a mere exercise in finding embarrassing college photos. The profs created five categories that map to character traits which often lead to success at work: Conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, extraversion and openness. Then, people were boiled down to a "personality score," which may as well be called a Facebook score.  Surprise! The score did a decent job of mapping to employee reviews six months later.


Donald Kluemper, a management professor at Northern Illinois University, said he doesn’t want human resources departments to begin using Facebook scores, which have so far been tested on only 56 people. But as my colleague Eve Tahmincioglu said so well, "It may be hard to put the Facebook personality cat back in the hiring bag."

We already know that U.S.-based hiring managers routinely browse Facebook while screening applicants (something that is illegal in Germany). A scoring system that automates that process, and promises to take human error out of it, will be just too tempting. 

 

Today is not the day to debate the wisdom of the “Moneyball-ization” of America, the wisdom of our newfound romance with everything and anything that fits into a database.  My main concern with Facebook scores -- as it is with insurance scores -- is the lack of transparency. Odds are that you pay more for your auto insurance than you should if your credit score is low. How much more? No one knows, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that auto insurance companies don't have to tell you. Insurers have decided that credit scores are a good predictor of future insurance claims, and punish drivers based on that.  But they don't have to tell them what the low-score penalty is.

Soon, some workers will face mysterious troubles getting past the first round of interviews, and have no idea why.  The cause could be an embarrassing photo in a social media profile. But based on this new research, it could that they don't discuss classic literature often enough in their timeline, or they don't have 700 friends. 

Study after study shows that while Americans claim to care about privacy, they don't.  Fewer than 10 percent change their behavior in an attempt to preserve their privacy; another  third essentially believe: "I have nothing to hide so why should I care?" 

Your Facebook score is the answer.

Professor Daniel Solove of George Washington University, who studies the intersection of privacy and policy, has found that most young Facebook users aren't worried about the things they post online because they have a naive faith that it won't hurt them later in life.  They believe no hiring manager would hold some random Tweet against them. They are wrong.  An HR department facing a stack of 100 resumes for one job would love a numerical tool that could automatically whittle the pile to five or six.  HR departments already do some of this whittling based on credit reports.

When young people tell me they have nothing to hide, I often ask them about their music  tastes. Most use iTunes, and increasingly use subscription services like Spotify. These firms know everything about their music tastes.  It is a very small leap to imagine these companies selling this data to employment background firms, which might then find a correlation between the bands that subjects listen to and their likelihood they'll habitually be late to work. Suddenly, a private allegiance to Megadeth could become a debilitating problem for an innocent worker who would have no idea why the rejection letters won't stop.

"No fair," folks often reply.

"But quite legal," I respond. Due to a quirk in the law (thanks to a very embarrassing Supreme Court nomination proceeding for Robert Bork), video rental records cannot be shared and sold in this manner. Thank God, otherwise Netflix would have done this long ago.  But music, social media posts, blog comments -- all these things are fair game to be sold, shared, jammed into a spreadsheet, and used to raise your health insurance rates or block you from a promotion.  Bought a lot of ice cream in 2008-2013? Watch those health insurance rates rise in 2020.

Maybe that's a good thing. To be fair, some people with higher credit scores do pay less for auto insurance because of this system. We can bicker about the wisdom of data mining and correlations. But we can't bicker about this: None of this is transparent.  No laws are in place to make sure this is fair.  No one has debated the wisdom of allowing social network activity to influence employment prospects (while other societies have decided against it). And most important, no one has made the rules clear for consumers.

There is a model for this. In the credit world, when consumers are denied a loan because of a low credit score, they are entitled to receive a "notice of adverse action." They are also entitled to see a copy of the credit report used in the decision.  Now is the time to think about regulations to ensure such consumer rights in this even-expanding world of "Score-sanity."  If someone's job prospects are hurt by the number of Tweets they publish on the New York Yankees, they should know. They should be entitled to a copy of their "Facebook Score" and the report that goes with it. 

I know companies which create such reports view them as proprietary, as the secret sauce they sell, and they fear that if consumers learn how the system works, they'll try to game the system. Tough. We’re talking about lives and livelihoods here. 

Correction: An initial version of this report said HR departments use credit scores when considering applicants. They use credit reports without a credit score.

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