Big Brother is watching

Big-Brother_RESIZED

Irena Bukhshtaber, 23 September, 2019

Last month several Cathay Pacific staff, two pilots and the much-praised CEO lost their jobs for supporting the Hong Kong airport protests. China urged a boycott, which proved disastrous for Cathay, who was forced to show contrition by banning staff from publicly commenting on the protests; if they wanted to keep their jobs.

In the same month, an Australian public servant lost her High Court appeal to be reinstated after she was fired from the Department of Immigration for anonymously criticising their policy on Twitter, in her own time.

Recent research into the changing face of recruiting in Australia shows that even brief and often innocent bursts of engagement can ruin your job prospects for years and even decades.

My own early research into AI, recruitment and technology has found evidence that employers are using your digital detritus to create a story about you that’s well outside the bounds of resumes, cover letters and referees.

We often forget that most social platforms were specifically designed to grab your attention and not for granular career branding. For millions of Australians posting is a fleeting ‘release valve’ for random thoughts; while many peaceful campaigns, from Sleeping Giants OZ to 1 Million Women, depend on growing online support to succeed. Like the two cases above, your clicktivist whims now impact your job prospects.

With the introduction of AI into screening and applicant selection, cyber vetting is one of the first things that can easily be automated. Meaning that it’s now efficient and affordable for employers and recruiters to use big data surveillance techniques on all applicants.

That’s a lot more than just scanning your CV for keywords that match a job ad.

Until recently you were the only owner of your career narrative retrospectively. You pulled the threads of your job history together and presented it in a way that made the best impression.

Now more than ever, you are no longer the author of your work story, and any piece of digital detritus in your timeline can and will be scooped up and reinterpreted by prospective employers looking to get a ‘better picture’ of you as an employee.

Sure, technology and AI means that employers can find you even if you’re not looking for work and post simultaneously to lots of job sites; but that same algorithm can just as easily spy on you now while thoroughly scrutinising your past posting.

With AI it’s as easy as sending an email.

So, unless you’re proactively self-censoring every social post in anticipation of some unknown future job, then your casual tweets or posts could sabotage your career down the track. Not to mention the ten years or more of your archival social posts that AI can chew through in seconds.

Most employers state they see no problem with scanning your social pages without your knowledge. Before AI it was time-consuming and rarely systematic. Worse still, research shows the narrative employers form is out of time and out of context. So that any fragments they find, even from years’ past, will affect your professional impression now.

What’s more, you will never know that the reason you are not getting an interview is because of one rogue photo of you drinking shots at your sisters’ hen’s night; or that your gorgeous three children mean you are probably not going to be focussed on the job as much as a man or childless woman; or that the hiring manager just doesn’t like motorbikes and you are on one on Facebook.

These aren’t made up scenarios but real hiring managers research responses.

So, is this legal, is it ethical?

Hiring is hard. Just like dating, everyone is trying to put their best foot forward. Companies are equally using corporate websites and social platforms to promote their organisation in glowing terms.

Yet until recently, it’s been largely you, the candidate, who wrote the story of your career. Your CV and cover letter could explain any gaps or smooth over the rough edges in your employment history.

Now that power has shifted to recruiters, armed with new AI, who use your CV as a jumping-off point to randomly dig into your life online.

This is a new battleground for work/life balance. We need to consider what it means to have a private and public online life. Just because someone can see into your backyard doesn’t mean they should.

It’s worth having this debate now, possibly as part of the government’s artificial intelligence ethics framework, before we let technology get ahead of our work regulatory framework, and before we are all forced to spend hours sanitising our social footprint to save our career.

No doubt, someone’s building an app for that soon.

Author

irena-b-200PX

Irena Bukhshtaber

PhD Candidate studying AI, recruitment and ethics in Australia as part of the Work/Industry Futures research area in the QUT School of Business Management.

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