Google Guy: Those photos don’t matter as much as you think

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By Jason Warner — There has been a lot of press regarding the implications for job seeker of Those Photos on MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites. You know the pictures I’m referring to…

Most of the discussions I’ve heard on the topic are cautionary, as in, “Beware! What you post or say on the Internet could be online for a Very Long Time!”

As the leader of large corporate recruiting organizations (now Google, and before that at Starbucks) I have a different perspective.

We are in a new and unprecedented time with regard to the level of transparency the Internet creates between jobseekers and employers. More than ever before, jobseekers today know way more about the companies they might work for (and the people inside those companies, if you check OfficeBallot and Vault, for example), and employers know more about the candidates they might want to hire.

But here are five reasons that employers are not going to spend their time worrying about your unfortunate online photos – and other embarrassing antics from earlier years.

1. There is nothing any of us can do to change the behavior of college students.
From what I can tell, these, er…, activities have been happening in one form or another for as long as there have been colleges. Which is a very long time indeed. Our parents just didn’t mention it.

2. As time goes on, more and more detail about all of us will be found online.
Instead of a snippet or an indiscrete photo, there will be entire personal and professional “dossiers” about all of us and that information will be far more influential than a few unfortunate and unfocused pictures. For example, a blog is an excellent example of the sort of information that might be relevant to employers, if only to get a sense of how a potential hire communicates in writing. Half-naked underwear shots through a tequila-stained lens…not so valuable.

3. Searching for Those Photos won’t be worth our time.
As the velocity of job changes continues to move along at a rapid pace, and talent moves into and out of organizations more frequently than ever before. Most studies indicate that corporate recruiting departments are continuing to be strained to do more with less. So recruiters won’t have time to go hunting for Those Photos when there’s not much return on that investment.

4. The information isn’t relevant anyway.
Those Photos are representative of behaviors that many young candidates experience, and don’t likely correlate to on the job performance. If we have the bravery to get real about the topic, we all recognize that there a lot of things we do in private that we wouldn’t shared in public. Given the reach and permanence, the Internet just provides a smaller margin of error for revealing these natural human slips.

5. Its a slippery slope that could be bad for employers.
Today there is a fuzzy but growing distinction that companies will continue to draw between candidate professional experiences, competencies, and capabilities and their private lives and outside behaviors. It’s a line we don’t likely want to cross, because if we cross it for candidates, we may cross it for employees, and that compounds the problem to a monumentally greater degree.

In most cases, Those Photos will become a non-issue as this phase of the Internet Age plays itself out. Indeed, the leading companies in talent acquisition will continue to refine their hiring processes to become more and more scientific over time, because we now have much more data and tools to quantify what drives performance inside our companies.

However, the vast majority of selection processes at companies aren’t based on data-driven analysis as much as on interview processes that are far from scientific. So, there certainly is risk in posting Those Photos online. But that risk should diminish over time.

46 replies
  1. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Welcome, Google Guy! If I was hiring, I would probably roll my eyes at party pictures. But there are other images posted all over, people acting out all sorts of fantasies online, trying on pretend personas, acting out tough guy dramas, etc. What ever happened to the idea of “too much information”? Or such revelations keeping pace with growing trust?

    In the future, maybe these photos and YouTube clips should be included in resume submissions. And why even dress up for an interview? Just wear your street clothes, or maybe your favorite wizard costume. I have nothing against playing online, but if you don’t want it associated with your name for a long time, just play in the real world, away from the cameras.

  2. Jason Alba
    Jason Alba says:

    As a hiring manager I would definitely care about the pictures. I went to college for um, well, around seven years :p and I don’t have those pictures. I know plenty of people that went to school and didn’t party until they were silly (my two colleges where rather conservative) — I always hire someone that will make me look smart to my bosses and coworkers, and someone that I can trust with my customers and prospects.

    I agree with parts of this post, but think its not a blanket approval to put lots of dumb (not boring, rather poor taste) pictures online. Also, I think the level or position that you are being hired for will matter.

    Alas, I clearly don’t have the experience that Jason has – perhaps he is right and these pic’s will be ignored.

  3. Mary
    Mary says:

    Timely–my husband is reviewing resumes for summer interns for his hedge fund. When he Googled one of the names, the first link that came up was the guy’s profile on a dating site. (Good way to learn more about the guy’s personal rather than professional interests, I guess.) While it isn’t going to affect whether my husband interviews the guy or not, it has certainly influenced his first impression of the candidate. (He remarked that the guy looked like he NEEDED a online service to get a date.)

    Oodles of studies have shown that interviewers make unconscious positive/negative decisions about potential hires within seconds of meeting them. I’m sure that the information recruiters gain via the Internet has the same affect. While my husband will not NOT hire the intern because of his online dating profile, it will be in the back of his mind when it is time to weigh the guys merits against those of others. it seems to me the comic, nerdy first impression this intern has already made will be a (possibly unconscious) strike against him during the deliberation process. In other words, the intern has put up a barrier that he needs to overcome during the interview.

    If interviewers can’t disregard how a person shakes hands at the start of an interview, how are they expected to ignore information they gain online? It will be added to the decision mix–and the outcome will of course depend on the interviewer’s own criteria.

    My question–do you think a hiring manager has an obligation to forward information gained during a google search–such as those drunken photos–to people who will be conducting 2nd and 3rd interviews? I would think yes. So, if the drunken college student gets hired, at least half the company will have probably viewed those stupid photos. What a great way to start out a job!

    * * * * * * * *

    Mary: There is a real and potential legal risk in making hiring decisions based on the inferences and other ‘soft impressions’ that candidates make on us during an interview, particularly if they are directly relatable to a job. In fact, I predict that we will see cases in the courtrooms within the next 12 months (we will all see if I am right) where candidates sue employers for discriminatory hiring practices because something disqualified them for a job that wasn’t relevant and could be perceived as discriminatory. It doesn’t mean they will win, but I think it’s inevitable.

    Imagine you and I are interviewing for a job, and you have FAR better qualifications than I do (which is likely by the way :-), but I get the job because the hiring manager was forwarded some photos of you at the frat house back in ’88. And let’s say you find out about it during the interview process because an uneducated member of the interview team says, “So tell me about these pictures that are on MySpace…”. And then, because we live in a transparent world, you find out that I actually got the job, and then you find pictures of me on Facebook that are, um, off-kilter.What would you do?

    Slippery slopes need to be avoided. Hiring decisions need to be based on job-related competencies, experiences, and skills.

    Great discussion everyone. Thanks for welcoming me so warmly.


  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    Nice post, Jason! And thanks to Penelope for bringing another voice into the mix.

    I agree with Jason – both of them (Warner and Alba). For the most part, those wacky and even racy pictures from college only demonstrate that many of us had (at some point) high alcohol tollerances. And, in most cases, they’re merely eye-rollers. But when candidates have similar eduction and experience, the decision on which to hire often comes down to character. That’s when those pictures can really hurt.

  5. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I’m not a hiring manager, but I use google to check out prospective tenants for a few rental suites my husband and I have. If their story of what they do and who they are matches what I find on the internet, it gives a degree of confidence that they are trustworthy. If they say they work in film and television (which many of our tenants do) and I can’t find them via google in the credits of any production, for example, I’m suspicious and would probably move on to another prospective tenant.

    So, perhaps the lesson for job seekers is to make sure information on the internet doesn’t contradict your resume (ie don’t lie or exaggerate). If you tried to be an actor and failed to get any roles so worked at Starbucks, tell the truth.

    * * * * * * *
    Wendy – We are definitely living in a more transparent world than ever before.  I think a more transparent world further strengthens the assertion that ‘doing good is good for you’ and that involves telling the truth as you suggest.
  6. Maureen
    Maureen says:

    Recently a friend of mine told me she’d taken a pass on two prospective hires because one had written a blog rant about her inability to handle money, and the other had some of those “I’m trashed” pictures out there. I found her decision understandable – why take a risk? – but still harsh. Most people have done something in their youth that they regret (or at least find retrospectively embarrassing) – it’s just that these indiscretions weren’t captured for all the world to see. Overtime, I think that hiring managers will come up with a statute of limitations for some minor things – but not for others. Drunken party YouTubes are one thing. Any indication of racism, sexism, homophobia, violence (however i was drunk/just kidding)…can and will be held against candidates. No expunging these missteps.

    * * * * * * *

    Maureen: I think your comment about quality (or severity) of ‘infractions’ as described in an online setting is really insightful. It reminds me of times when employees have been hired, but the background investigation didn’t happen on the front end of the process, and then the hiring manager learns about a egregious misstep in the person’s past. In these cases, it’s typical that offers are rescinded to candidates that have big issues in their past. Issues related to the topics you discuss that are clearly relatable to job performance might be relevant.


  7. Sara
    Sara says:

    As someone right out of college who is job hunting right now, I found Jason’s post very relevant.

    I think it is somewhat unfair for employers to look at potential employees’ Myspace or Facebook profiles, because I do think it is acceptable for college students to act like college students. However, I have reduced my own Facebook profile to very basic info and used the privacy settings to restrict potential employers from looking at my photos because of one word: discretion.

    I think when an employer looks to the internet to screen applicants, it may be harmful that the applicant has these questionable pictures that imply an immature lifestyle, but it may be even MORE harmful that the applicant hasn’t taken the time or had the discretion to remove this part of his or her personal life during a job search. Do you really want someone working for you that doesn’t have the good sense to do this? Wouldn’t you be afraid that this would be the kind of person who would blurt out inappropriate things in front of an important client, for example?

    Thus, I choose to keep my personal life private not because I am ashamed of my private life, but because I think that it shows that I am conscientious and discreet, and I encourage my peers to take the same steps.

    * * * * * * *
    Sara, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say you think it’s acceptable that college students behave like college students.  If we are really honest with ourselves, everyone has skeletons in their closets (maybe it’s not drunken parties involving funnels and 1″ surgical tubing) that could be revealed online and position them differently in the eyes of others.  
  8. Greg
    Greg says:

    “Hiring decisions need to be based on job-related competencies, experiences, and skills.”

    This is where the Internet search could come in. Not the “I did something stupid ten years ago” search. But blogs like “I can not handle money” of someone looking for a job in finance or “I can never stop at one drink” for of someone who will be entertaining clients.

    One of the important skills in job-searching and interviewing is dealing with negatives.

    Also, some companies care about the character and work-ethic of their employees, often putting into practice the belief that they can train the right people.

  9. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Hey, Cuppa J. I guess you need a new name. I guess Google Guy is okay for the masses but not for the Recruitosphere. I’ll get to work on it.

    On topic, I agree with you partly for this reason: The ability of photo and video cell phones to capture all sorts of embarrassing pictures of everybody which can then be uploaded to the internet will make this for the most part a non-issue.

    If we all live in a candid camera culture how important can a few crazy college stunts be?

    I suspect that hiring rejections based on Facebook would just be a fad anway provoked by the novelty of medium. Which is rapidly becoming like what else is new.

    * * * * * * *
    Thanks, Michael. I agree, and you raise another interesting point: What if someone else posts pictures of you online, should those pictures be held against you in a job search?
  10. oldguy
    oldguy says:

    I always thought Google Guy, who has been dispensing wisdom at Webmaster World for years, was Matt Cutts. It is going to be big news in the SEO world that Google Guy is really a human resources expert who until recently worked at Starbucks.

    Nice column, though. It’s good to see that your expertise goes beyond search algorithms and busting spammers.

  11. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    I agree with Jason’s comments about where does the line stop and start. I will certainly not be surprised when the lawsuits start popping up around these issues.

    When employers look into your private life to make hiring decisions, how do we know when they are being discriminatory and when they’re making sound decisions? Suppose an employer found a picture of a potential hire or employee at a fundraiser with their same-sex partner, or at a political fundraiser for the “opposing party” and decided not to hire them? That would be discriminatory. Counting people out for certain reasons is just as bad as hiring them because nepotism or affiliations.

    I have friends in..let’s just say “alternative careers” that know PLENTY of clients/customers who are public officials, or are top brass at large firms who are married with 2.5 kids, house with white picket fence, etc. Do we say those people shouldn’t have the jobs they have because of what they do outside of work? I think based on the behaviors of today’s corporate leaders a silly blog or a stupid picture pale in comparision.

    While I appreciate the need to have the most information possible to make the best hiring decision, I’m also worried about the potential path to unjust hiring practices.

  12. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    I routinely strip any identifying material from my blog, so there is nothing to trace back to the real me. In the ultimate extreme I can always just drop my existing blogs and re-appear as someone else in a new blog with a new name.

    Sort of like one of those old-fashioned pulp heroes. I rather like that idea. Maybe I’ll get myself one of those wide-brimmed hats, a black cape and a ring with a mysterious red stone….

  13. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    First of all, not all college students are party animals. Specifically, not all college students binge drink and post pictures of their drunkeness on an internet social site. Perhaps there is even a corelation between people who party (read: get piss drunk) in college and who have myspace/facebook accounts (and keep them public). Also, people tend to spend time with people that are similar to them (makes sense) and will generalize their friends experiences to a whole population. I.e. the “everyone parties” statement.

    Not everyone parties/drinks heavily. Many campus alcohol studies will tell you that drinkers are in the minority. Especially heavy drinkers. However, people generally notice the loud, puking drunk person rather than the quiet nerdy types in the library on friday nights. Interestingly, on my campus it was the students from overseas who worked harder than any “native” students who stayed in on Fridays…hmm, and we wonder why jobs are going overseas? Perhaps some people aren’t taken things like education for granted. Just a thought.

    Also, more importantly you are no longer a college student when you are looking for employment, and employed people are expected to project a professional appearance, which doesn’t include half-naked drunkeness. It is best to not blur the lines between your public and private life via myspace, because an employer will only see the public persona.

    All that being said and tangents aside, I am in my mid-twenties, like alcoholic beverages but never to the point where I am throwing up, and have both myspace and facebook profiles which I keep private. And my last boss would tell us names of people to google and check on myspace before an interview even happened.

  14. Mike
    Mike says:

    Of course many of us partied in college. But posting it on the internet means you’re proud of it to this day. If this is the image of you you want the world to see, well, maybe you’re not the candidate I had in mind.

  15. Scott Allen
    Scott Allen says:

    I have mixed feelings on this.

    I don’t think people should be too concerned about old “those photos” being pulled up on or something. And as I’ve heard so many people say, “Would you really want to work for a company where ‘those photos’ are an issue?”

    On the other hand, if “those photos” are STILL up on your profiles, then you’re just an idiot and you deserve to be flipping burgers. ;-)

  16. Mike Miller
    Mike Miller says:

    The transparency became a Problem to me when I uploaded my Video Resume to Youtube which I used to apply for jobs. Suddenly I got stupid comments from co workers who found my Video.
    After that I deleted that one and Uploaded again to because only Companies were able to view it. Having things like that secure makes just more sense.



  17. Tea
    Tea says:

    This gives me some relief. I was introduced to the internet when I was extremely young and have grown up as the net itself was growing up. Being an awkward teen on the internet and learning the hard way all the mistakes we don’t make now is terrifying from the job interview perspective. I was a strange child, and the internet helped me find my identity. I’m only 23 and don’t plan on having any drunk pictures of me posted, but I have searched things in my past that I am VERY ashamed of today. I don’t want those searches, that past brought up. I was a teenager, finding myself. Now I am a semi-adult who has had good life experience, education, and I would rather my future employers judge me on that instead. Seeing all these “THE INTERNET IS FOREVER” articles and things gives me a sick feeling. The job market I’ll be going into is already scarce. I can’t afford to have people judge me on who I am not anymore.

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