My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Harvard Business Review Case Commentary: “We Googled You” (newly interactive)

In each issue, the Harvard Business Review has a section called “Case Commentary” where they propose a fictional but realistic scenario and invite different prominent folks to respond. I was given the great honor of being invited to respond to a case entitled “We Googled You.”

In Diane Coutu’s hypothetical scenario, Fred is trying to decide whether or not to hire Mimi after one of Fred’s co-workers googles Mimi and finds newspaper clippings about Mimi protesting Chinese policies. [The case study is 2 pages - this is a very brief synopsis.] Given the scenario, we were then asked, “should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”

Unfortunately, Harvard Business Review does not make their issues available for free download (although they are available at the library and the case can be purchased for $6) *but* i acquired permission to publish my commentary online for your enjoyment. It’s a little odd taken out of context, but i still figured some folks might enjoy my view on this matter, especially given that the press keep asking me about this exact topic. (Update: apparently HBR has the case without responses on their site for the Interactive Case Study.)

“We Googled You: Should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”

Update: Apparently, unbeknownst to me, HBR has decided to make this case study the First Interactive Case Study. While they don’t share all of our responses with the public, they invite anyone to respond to the case with their own feelings on the matter. They want people to submit to their site so that they can publish the best-of, but personally, i’d be *stoked* to hear how all readers of this blog would respond to this case study. So, please submit something, but also add your thoughts to the comments or post your response to your blog (and comment the URL) so that we can all read your thoughts. I found this exercise mentally fun and i hope you do too! (tx Andy Blanco)

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16 comments to Harvard Business Review Case Commentary: “We Googled You” (newly interactive)

  • Hmm…this is very interesting. I wrote a piece a while back on a company called Reputation Defender:

    http://www.leveragingideas.com/?p=74

    I think this is a very real problem and I am glad to see that Harvard is covering it. I think images are the biggest threat, especially on social media sites like Facebook. It’s an even bigger problem now if Facebook profiles have become searchable in Google…oooch

  • What I’d really like to know is who say “No”, their reasons, and how representative those people are of actual hiring decision-makers.

  • The “how to participate” section reads like a recipe on how NOT to get people to participate:

    So, let’s see.. I have to download Adobe Reader 8, view a PDF, and fill out a form in Adobe Reader 8.

    Have these folks ever heard of a little something called the web browser? and perhaps the FORM tag?

    Sorry, but HBR just doesn’t get it. I’d like to participate, but I won’t be, because they’ve put too many barriers in front of me.

  • This is an interesting philosophical question, contrasting a desire for better fitting employees with the managerial goal risk insulation.

    On one hand, by Googling the candidate, the employer gets a more holistic view of the candidate. They get to look past the CV, the letters of recommendation, and they get to find out a little bit about the “real” candidate. Undoubtedly, when you delve into an individual’s unfiltered ego stream, you’re going to come across things that you don’t agree with – this is human and natural. Employers should expect this for every candidate they Google – this is not outlier behavior.

    If the company penalizes Mimi for her history, they are choosing ignorance over knowledge. With knowledge comes the good and the bad; I’d argue that it is better to know both the good and the bad. And for the “bad”, it is worthwhile to let the subject contextualize their traces. If the company chooses a less qualified candidate with no digital traces, what are they giving up? They have essentially chosen ignorance (and risk insulation) over talent.

    Ultimately, employers will make decisions like these to protect their interests. Employers will cast off qualified candidates with bad credit histories or background checks just as they’ll cast off people that don’t Google well. These companies have chosen risk mitigation over upside. However, is it wise to choose this “head in the sand” approach? Because you see no evil, it certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    One of the main problems with using Google results is context. Google results lack context, order, temporal information – all very important metadata that should go into any judgment. Because an employee doesn’t Google well is certainly not an exclusionary criteria; rather, it is an opening for frank, knowledge-producing discussions.

  • The last line in your response “part of living in a networked society is learning how to accessorize our digital bodies, just as we learn to put on the appropriate clothes to go to the office.”

    Mike Dover (working with Anastasia at y-pulse, she interviewed you for our paper)

    http://www.wikinomics.com/blog

  • The Harvard Business Review doesn’t give enough information to make a decision. The first thing I’d want to do, if I were Westen, is talk to Mimi, and find out why she didn’t tell us about her youthful politics. It could create problems for her in her new job, and she should have disclosed the activity to her potential employers.

    If Mimi had been upfront about her activities during the interview process, I’d say, sure, hire her in a minute. But Mimi’s failure to disclose shows potentially poor judgment when on the job. I’d want to hear what she has to say about that.

    Also, as head of the flagship store in Shanghai, she’d have to deal day-to-day with officials of the same government she was protesting. Would she be able to do that?

    I’d make my judgment of whether to hire her based on what she has to say to those questions.

  • Erica

    This hits pretty close to home. I had to resign from a job because an employee with a grudge googled me and sent my blog to HR. Employers want to know who they’re hiring, and who can blame them? I’d probably do the same, and I can’t say that it wouldn’t affect my hiring decision.

  • Assuming her skills are sufficient I would try to figure if hiring her would be good -or- bad for the company.
    The most prominent consideration therefor should be the context from within her actions in 1999 are evaluated and how they can work for or against her. It is not 1999 anymore, China has changed.
    I would investigate what happened to the dissident journalist (did he become famous and got awarded with a Pulitzer price)? The risk for political reactions with regards to permits not handed over, etc., should be evaluated. Remember that from within the chinese ambassady photographs have been made, so the internet in fact enabled the company to anticipate a possible political reaction to this hiring!
    Further find out if her actions appeal to young people nowadays (can the company use her as a flagship to attract customers, how politically active is the supposed customer base)?
    After these questions have been answered I would decide.

  • I love how Ms. Coutu introduces Fred. Although making judgments on first impressions is a personal battle that I fight daily, I non the less paint Fred as a good ole boy. He dispels the staunch stereotypical good ole boy as you read on…sort of.

    I am surprised that Hathaway didn’t Google Mimi prior to the first meeting. I like Fred’s idea to converse with Mimi again and ask her head on about their findings.

    To recommend hiring Mimi one needs to have an understanding of the Chinese business culture. On the other hand however, times are rapidly changing. Maybe Mimi is the person to open doors for a throng of people previously unheard from in China.

    Personally, I love what Mimi’s generation brings to life and work, particularly since they grew up in the digital age.

  • I largely agree with what Mitch said above. Mimi’s failure to disclose her activities indicates a failure of judgment on her part. I would be concerned given this position will involve her making decisions.

    I disagree with Fred (the commenter) that if the company penalises Mimi it is a sign they have chosen ignorance over knowledge. Use of digital profiles in evaluating candidates is a legitimate way to determine whether an applicant is suitable. What companies shouldn’t do is assume that if nothing shows up in the Google search that their employee is perfect. But if something does show up companies shouldn’t feel obligated to put it down in the file but not act on it either.

  • Lizzy

    There is a substantial portion of people who are not-google-able because they have a very common name as well as a fair number of people whose google-able information demonstrates something not particularly representative of their personality, interests or life.

    Some people do not have a particular net presence associated with their real name, a factor people tend to blithely ignore in these scenarios. This is the corollary of what Mr. Camilleri is saying. Googling may give you additional information, but that additional information may be irrelevant, misleading, outdated or so incomplete as to be wrong. While failure to have a google-able identity might strike some people as odd, I think that is a very narrow view. A person may be very private and intentionally keeping herself out of the database. A person may have little interest in participating in online fora, although she is well-versed in the technology and able to use the resources. A person may have no real access to the internet and be unable to cultivate a google-able presence.

    I would use the information I found, but not necessarily as canon.

  • Simply put, we have two online identities: the one we create and the one created for us.

    Can you make a decision about a person based on what they write on their blog, post to Flickr or create on MySpace? To some extent, yes. Most intelligent people know by now that anything you put online can be read by your employers, your friends and family. However, people change over time. Posts made in 1996 may not reflect who you are now.

    However, what if it’s not written by you, but about you? Well, it depends on the source. An article on nytimes.com http://tinyurl.com/34dm8x? A corporate blog http://tinyurl.com/2o7oaf? What about photo sharing site http://tinyurl.com/39btbj? Opinions based on from information gathered online must go through the same analytical process. Do I trust the source?

    In Mimi’s case, I do. However, I think that the question that HBR poses: would you hire her based on this information, is short-sighted. The question here is not the source of the information, but to what degree should one’s past actions define future employment?

    Protesting the WTO and the Chinese government’s treatment of journalists is not the same as leading a protest against Hathaway Jones – Mimi’s potential employer. I think that Westen should take two actions:

    1) Speak to Mimi about her collegiate protests and gauge her current beliefs and how it could effect her job.
    2) Determine if public knowledge of her past actions really would set back current business development.

    In the end, though, I’m just excited to see a drawing of danah’s cute mug in the pages on the Harvard Business Review. :)

  • MK

    I think the case is more complicated than a simple “hire” or “not to hire” decision. 3 things to consider here namely reason, logic and solution.
    I will start of with the solution and provide reason and logic for it. Under ideal circumstances I wouldn’t hire Mimi if i am able to get hold of a better candidate and play it safe. On the other hand if time does not permit this I would hire her on a contractual basis and continue the search of a better candidate for the same position.
    Lets consider the facts now. China unlike USA is a communist state and freedom of speech is limited. If anything related to the google findings are true they will come up sooner or later in time. Due to a 70% growth rate in China in the luxury goods market competitors will soon be flocked around Hathaway Jones and when they learn that Hathaway Jones has an employee with a questionable online presence they are more than likey to use it against her. Mimi on the other hand has a few plus points related to her which include her experience with fashion tastes for the young, 2 successful relaunches, an educational background of Chinese History and having grown up in China she relates to their culture and society. But is all this really enough? She is being considered for a country manager/Head of Operations position in China for Hathaway Jones. I would prefer a little more experience if i was Fred.
    I would recommend that the credibility of the google findings be traced out in order to establish solid reason for not hiring Mimi. Also I would try to get hold of someone better, preferrably with a safer record and more experience, time permitting because strategically this is an extremely important investment for Hathaway Jones considering its current situation in the U.S. Mimi is a bright person and can be hired and charged with operations of Hathaway Jones internationally and the person hired for China’s operations could report directly to Mimi.

  • Rao Muhammad Fahad

    After reading this case i can say that Fred should hire Mimi. Because mimi is talented, educated and suitable for the job even I can say she is a right person at a right time and a right place. If we see the past background of mimi that has been searched by Fred?s HR assistant. Can you make a reject about a person based on picture uploaded on myspace. Intelligent people like graduated from Barclay university California USA. Can not do this stopped thing when they know that any one can see those pictures like friends their employees, subordinates even their family members and clear here about those articles that published in USA?s renowned news paper about Mimi that she participated in the campaign against WTO. Not just mimi or mimi?s university participated on non-voluntarily protest even all the university protested against WTO in USA even all over the World. You can not predict about any one until or unless you don?t hire that person. Educated, smart and motivated for work doesn?t comes every day.

  • ben

    Therefore, how much better to know whether or not you have been Googled by your current or future employer in the first place.

    This can be done by joining one of the growing number of online address books for people that place your name (on your profile) high up in the search engine results and provide a search alert service – for example either wikiworldbook.com or ziggs.com.

    When someone Googles your name, the profile will be clearly visible in the search engine results and be an obvious target to investigate. The moment they have clicked your profile, you will be alerted by email with such information as the searchers geographical location ironically plotted on a Google map, the name of the business associated with the IP address, the keyword used to find you and the search engine being used.

    Of course it won’t pick up every time you are being Googled because it depends on your profile being clicked – but if its truely you they are searching for, the chances are good they will click your profile.

  • I think, that as a CEO, my duty is to protect the interests of the business I do. Having Mimi in the Chinese store, is good for business as she is aware of the Chinese culture and can understand the best of both worlds. But, I should talk to her to understand, why she protested so and what was the background.

    We should take a holistic view and then take the decision. As every individual has a dark side to him whether it gets published or not, is a fact. But what is the context is a very important issue. Even China is changing and is not the same as in 1999.

    If I feel convinced that she had reacted according to the situation, I think there is nothing wrong in hiring her.

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