Social media checks, bias and the presumption of innocence

A few weeks ago, stories started circulating about an IT consultant who would approach women on tinder and, after being rejected, insult them. I work at a series B fintech in London. At our weekly all-hands, I learned that a he used to work for my company. After talking about him being bad, the CEO talked about introducing stricter checks for new staff, including social media and news searches, to prevent someone like that from getting in.

Putting aside the fact that a policy like this wouldn’t do much, most bad people don’t have newspaper stories written about them, it’s interesting how quickly people were willing to destroy someones life. Of the people I talked to about this, most were left wing and yet almost none had stopped for a moment to think about the ethics of barring someone from holding a job on the basis of basis of a single article published in a right wing tabloid. It’s not that we had different views on what the burden of proof was before someone should be considered guilty/too-risky and silently denied a job at our firm, it’s that the question was never raised in the first place. Needless to say, this is wrong. As always [[A big part of ethics is getting people to admit their decision is a moral one]]

As startups grow, most start doing background on candidates at some point. There are a few risks that arise from this. The two most serious in my eyes are the increased scope for bias as the personal life/political views of a candidate leak more into the interview process and getting things wrong.

Getting people to want to address the problem of bias can be hard. Assuming people do want to address it, solving it is not that hard. Some basic process around the screening can help:

  • The people doing the screening should be different from those doing the interview
  • Screeners by default should not pass information about the candidates personal life, political beliefs or other bias vectors to interviewers/assessors
  • The things that candidates are being screened for should be well defined (e.g: criminal activity, threats of violence on social media, history of rape accusations etc…) rather than left vague. This is because, unfortunately, a significant proportion of people genuinely believe that the political tribe opposed to theirs is evil and even greater proportions have strong biases against those who are from their political outgroup. Hence leaving the screening criteria undefined will usually lead to those biases creeping in.

Mitigating the wrongness problem is harder. It’s harder because determining what is and is not true when all you have to go on are years old media articles or anonymous posts is difficult. It’s also hard because it requires that people do things that are morally right but bad for them personally. As a decision-maker, choosing to not hire someone is always safe. On the other hand hiring someone who is later revealed to have done bad things, or things other employees think are bad, can seriously damage your career. It’s because of this incentive structure that in the vast majority of situations people will advocate for not-hiring a person but no one will advocate for hiring them. I’m not sure how to solve the wrongness problem. My only two suggestions are:

  • Having a procedure for intentionally taking the accused’s side can help overcome the social stigma associated with defending a "bad" person. Just as we specifically assign lawyers to defend accused criminals in court, so as a hiring committee you can either choose one person or set aside 15 minutes as a group where you genuinely try to shoot holes in the case against a prospective candidate.
  • Rather than silently binning candidates, consider calling them and asking them about the allegations. It’s surprising how often media stories are later retracted or how common cases of mistaken identity can be.

Denying someone employment on ethical rather than economic grounds is a serious decision. It means that you’re leveraging your economic power to make political power, which is not something to be done lightly. If other firms do the same, as they often will since most large companies in a given sector tend to have similar norms and culture, your actions may make it impossible for these people to hold jobs. This kind of blacklisting is even more serious. If you’re going to do it, you should invest some time to make sure that you do it well.

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