HR, recruiting and your true authentic self

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer January 29, 2021
While people yearn to be free to express themselves and their wants/desires, they can’t really be that free to express themselves fully with their current or potential employers. Some tech firms want to change that, but will people cooperate and will businesses use this information correctly? We’re in murky waters here!

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(Via Vital Analysis)

The news in HR circles has been quite interesting in recent weeks. One of the big questions was this: “Can a firm fire an employee for attending/participating in the Capitol insurrection?” 

Fast Company had one of the more nuanced pieces on this subject in this article. It stated:

Can employees be fired for having attended the riot?

In a word (OK, two.): It depends.

But the bottom line is this: Breaking the law is grounds for dismissal, experts say. Any sort of law-breaking—even that which doesn’t result in handcuffs, like damaging property or trespassing—is a fireable offense. 

In the case of last week’s Capitol siege, employers should consider specifics: Are the people involved at-will employees or not? What state do they work in? Are they public- or private-sector workers? And crucially, what exactly did they do?

The media has reported that a bass player, a nurse, an attorney and others have been fired because of their presence at this event. 

Search engine results will turn up all kinds of variations on this issue:

  • What if the person attended the gathering, pre-riot, but didn’t participate in the storming of the building?
  • What if the employee was seen wearing company branded attire? 
  • What if the employee spoke on television about the event as was identified as an employee of the firm?
  • Can we do anything if a former employee was at the event and wore an old company uniform?
  • Can we fire someone whose social media posts indicate political stances that are extreme?
  • Can we fire someone whose social media posts are contrary to the company’s culture and core values?
  • Etc.

Mixed into these HR questions are first amendment issues and some real concerns around when an employee’s private life can/cannot differ from what a company wants or expects of them. Taken to an extreme, an employer could theoretically fire someone just because they attended certain concerts, social events, churches, etc. that the employer had issues with.  In some cases, church affiliated schools have dismissed employees whose sexual orientation is at odds with church doctrine. 

It’s for these reasons that many workers are very careful in managing their personal brand. It’s also why many are reluctant to let an employer realize what an employee’s ‘true authentic self’ really is.  Finding out what your employees are really all about is like learning what’s inside a hotdog. You might not want to touch another one of those after getting a peek at that process. 

Employees will disclose their true self 

Last week, I logged into LinkedIn and was immediately presented with a story that an acquaintance had posted. What I and others immediately noticed was the t-shirt this person was wearing. It had an overtly political message on it that would surely upset many who saw it. In fact, the comment stream below that posting was universally against this political statement. 

I didn’t weigh in on this post and didn’t have to as the posting disappeared about as fast as it appeared. 

This situation is not uncommon. People put things out on dating sites, social media sites, etc. that employers, customers and others will not like or find inconvenient or uncomfortable. Just imagine what your employer might surmise if they saw the kinds of multi-player video games you play, the products you bought online, the junk food you had delivered to your home, your credit card purchases, etc. Yes, people leave all kinds of clues to their authentic self online, but that truth can come with consequences. For one, employers might object. 

When it comes to social media, does a person have a right to post things of a personal nature? Absolutely. Would potential employers have the right not to hire him/her? Right again. Employers are the ones with power in this matter as many people are employed at-will. Employers usually don’t need a reason to fire someone - it’s a discretionary decision that’s up to them.

But, people will do more than leave breadcrumb trails online. In fact, people are some of the most multi-faceted inhabitants on the Earth. Almost no one, and no technology, can truly know the sub rosa feelings, character, career wants/desires, etc. of an employee or job seeker. Think about it, none of us are a constant. What we need, want and care about changes over time. Right now, I’d like some ice cream. 

An employee caring for an elderly parent has different career needs than someone right out of college but these needs will always fluctuate. If a colleague’s marriage is suddenly failing, are they really going to be that ‘engaged’ in their work? Nope. People and their lives change daily, sometimes more frequently than that! 

This constantly shifting, multi-dimensional nature of human beings is a thing to wonder. If you really got a chance to understand a person, you might find out a lot of things. They might be an adulterer, gambler, social drinker, missionary, bigamist, coach, entrepreneur, hobbyist, sociopath, ill, pet owner, nature lover, left-handed, adopted, etc.  The key issue is whether any of these are something an employer should know or care about and how much of this will an employee/jobseeker share.  

HR technology and the true self

The “true self” goal of HR technologies may be an unattainable pipe-dream. There are tools to understand job seekers, career movements, and more but are they effective? Here’s a taste of this effort:

Lots of energy in HR tech is being expended to help employers and potential/current employees find out what is really motivating people. The goal, theoretically, is to place people into the right roles so that engagement goes up, attrition goes down, hiring costs are reduced and profits improve. While I like the concept, it has some challenges. The biggest shortcomings with these tools are:

  • They are a point-in-time assessment
  • Employees will fib just to get through the assessments in as little time as possible
  • Employees will game the results if they think it will help their career
  • They do nothing to solve one of the biggest killers of engagement: bad bosses

I remember taking a battery of tests like this many years ago. I was about to graduate high school and took tests to determine what sort of career best suited my personality, skills, etc.  I was destined to become, if the results were correct, either a turkey farmer or a lab technician. Obviously, I missed my calling! By the way, I honestly answered the questions in these tests. 

When I took those tests, there were no computer related skills within it. Likewise, there was nothing of a business or entrepreneur focus in them either. And, the turkey farming concept kept me and my family laughing for weeks. To this day, I’ve never been to a turkey farm and do not intend to change that. 

Those tests didn’t deduce who I really was. I was then, and remain so today, a Type-A, technically oriented individual who has no desire to hang with turkeys. I’m also a lot of other things, too. And, I continue to add to my skill sets (e.g., I’ve rebuilt approximately two dozen automobile engines) although I don’t necessarily want to assume a career in some of these areas. 

I believe the comedian Jim Gaffigan explained people best when he said that he loves to eat but that doesn’t mean he can cook. Amen, Jim! What we like and what we want to do (or are qualified to do) can be different things altogether. The same can apply to jobs, too.  I once worked with a lady that loved to go on job interviews. She just didn’t like to work. Alas, she was short-lived with our firm. 

Getting back to HR technology… 

Some HR technologies act like a detective agency. They scan the life work of an individual on social media. Questionable photos, acts, etc. are flagged for employers to consider prior to offering the jobseeker a position. There are reputation management products for people and reputation investigation tools for companies to use.  But note the advice in a Forbes article as it also outlines how people should put forth the most positive version of themselves online. In other words, jobseekers can and do represent the best possible version of themselves online – not necessarily, their true, authentic self.

Employers can use authentic jobseeker data in negative ways and potential hires know this. If you put graduation dates on your resume, recruiters can guess your age and discriminate against older workers. Sometimes, your education or hobbies will betray your gender to an employer that discriminates thusly. Sometimes, just inquiring about flexible work hours or work from home arrangements may (inaccurately) flag you as not being a team player. Poorly configured recruiting applications can be misused by businesses to get these views into jobseekers. 

One vendor that recently briefed me has technology that collects potentially hundreds of data points per worker annually. From these points of insight, they believe they capture a much more complete and current view of what is/isn’t motivating employees. While the frequency can solve the lack of timely input into career and succession planning purposes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that employees are feeding accurate information into this system. 

People are great at misdirection. Many of us have known a worker who moans about how much they hate their job, the commute, etc. but are still coming into work every day and have been for years on end. They are not going to leave their employer as they are the kind of person that just likes to have something to complain about every day. If their employer were to implement one of those status checking technologies, this kind of worker would set off all kinds of negative signals that aren’t reflective of the person’s willingness to do a solid day’s work for years to come. Likewise, we’ve all known the worker who comes to work and is a bubbly ray of sunshine. He/she seems quite happy but can suddenly announce their desire to work elsewhere. Systems still can’t sift through the contradictions and misdirection that employees can generate. 

We have a bit of a stalemate and an arms race today. Employers want more insights and information about employees and employees only want to provide information that benefits the employee. For every new measure or technology that employers deploy, employees and jobseekers are developing countermeasures. The needle isn’t really moving here, folks! 

I believe some products may someday provide timely, valuable insights into workers but not right now.

What employers should be considering about you

The mistake so many of these HR tools make is that they think people will voluntarily cough up information that could cost them a job interview, a promotion, etc. They won’t if they are watchful. 

What employers could do is learn about people based on what people have done not what they report. For example, there’s the concept of career velocity.  Career velocity describes the speed with which a person is getting promoted. If someone consistently gets promoted to ever higher-level positions every 24 months or so, then this person is likely a fast learner, ambitious and delivers the goods. Likewise, someone who has occupied the same position for a decade is either not interested or qualified to be promoted. While HR should check-in with this employee to verify their career intent, their lack of career interest is very telling.  

In fact, HR should automatically check-in with any employee when there is a material change in their career velocity. This could indicate that something has changed in their family life or that they have a new boss that won’t promote them for some reason. Using these changes in career velocity as intervention clues could actually foster a more engaged workforce as people might find the firm willing to help them. 

The employment timeline is another great diagnostic tool. Smart employers should be able to see a person’s entire work history diagrammed on such a timeline. From this, the company should be able to document or infer what’s likely happening with an employee without subjecting the employee to a battery of tests. The timeline should help managers and HR deduce likely career paths for this person and recommend appropriate training, projects and/or career suggestions. 

An employment timeline should also show the entirety of their work history not just that with the current employer. From this comprehensive timeline (often built from LinkedIn profiles, resumes and job applications), employers can see the career velocity, transfer/relocation history and more. Employees or jobseekers that have frequently changed employers may be ambitious, crave the excitement of a new employer/job, or may be motivated by additional pay or a signing bonus.  Understanding why people change employers can illuminate factors that might impact their willingness to remain with your firm. 

My take

Great HR tools that help fight attrition, improve engagement, etc. can be created without violating the privacy of workers. The HR tech industry just needs some imagination to see this. 

Likewise, we really need a whole new dialogue on what a person can/should divulge publicly without fear of recrimination from their employer. I’m not convinced that simply putting “the opinions are my own and may not reflect those of my employer” statements on social media profiles is the end-all be-all for this. Businesses and workforces need a better, consistent set of boundaries that encourage individuality, free expression, etc. while also drawing firm boundaries between the worker and their employer. So far, the lines are blurred, at best, and somewhat subjective, arbitrary and ill-defined. With better clarity, people might feel freer to open up their authentic self a bit more. 

If family histories and holiday letters are a guide, people will continue to emphasize personal successes and gloss over shortcomings, embarrassments, and failures. It’s human nature. Technology isn’t going to change this so maybe it shouldn’t try to either. 

Likewise, some people will test HR/employers. These are the outspoken, outrageous folks that make life interesting. We don’t need technology to understand them as they are already out there for all to see, hear and absorb. Businesses need to be clear on the rules and make sure everyone understands them. 

For now, businesses will not change people nor will they fully understand them. But they must try… 

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