Everyone who has worked in law enforcement has endured a background investigation. They’re not fun. Even if you have led a pure and unsullied life, someone can spin, exaggerate or even fabricate some detail causing the background investigator to doubt your suitability for a police career. Worse yet, most of us have had some intemperate moments when we said or did something we weren’t proud of. It wasn’t typical behavior, no one got hurt, and we’re pretty sure no one important knew about it. Right?
Good background investigators have a way of finding out about those transgressions, and are also good at making judgments as to whether they are representative of typical behavior or just momentary indiscretions. Welcome to the new world, where very little remains secret for long.
Private sector employers are increasingly making use of services like Social Intelligence to “mine” the datasphere for indications of job applicants’ behavior that might not appear on the application form. For several years now, most employers have had the advantage in the job market, with far more applicants than jobs to employ them. Making a bad personnel decision means that the time recruiting, vetting and training the new hire is lost, but also places the company’s reputation and relationship with customers at risk. If International Widget sends their new customer service technician out to a customer’s site and he shows up a day late with tequila on his breath, they may lose the customer’s business forever.
Law enforcement agencies take an even bigger risk. It’s not uncommon for a police or sheriff’s department to invest $100,000 in recruitment, training and outfitting costs to get one cop on the road, working independently. The new officer will have the opportunity—and the temptation—to steal, accept bribes, engage in sexual misconduct, and commit other acts that make unforgettable headlines and generate huge civil lawsuit payouts.
There’s No Escape
Outfits like Social Intelligence specialize in researching online and other published data for indicators of behavior. Since we live in the era of Facebook and Twitter, our lives have become considerably more public than was the case in the past. You may not have a Facebook account, but you probably have a friend who does, and the pictures they take and posts they make might include you. Is that you in the background of the photo taken at last year’s kegger? You know, the one where Mary Lou got knocked up and three guys passed out after doing some bad E?
Sure, you just stopped in and made for the door as soon as you saw what was going on. Still, that is you, isn’t it?
Do you participate in any online forums? Did you ever post a comment to a newspaper story? Did you forward an e-mail that contained a sex-oriented or racist cartoon? Yes, I agree, it was hilarious, and I know you don’t really feel that way. But what conclusion would someone else draw from that information, knowing it came from you?
The best predictor of future performance is past performance. People do change, but they are more likely to remain the same, at least in the short run. You can be reasonably sure about what people have done, less sure about what they will do. When these data-mining outfits start crunching numbers, they can attach some convincing statistics to certain indicators. Someone who has three Facebook posts referencing alcohol-related recreation is likely to develop a substance abuse problem within two years. I just made that up, but I bet there is a similar metric in use right now.
This information isn’t used just for new hires. People being considered for promotion or assignment to a new job are also vetted through data mining services, and assigned predictors of success based on the information they gather. You may be happy in the job you have, but the day may come when you decide to go for the promotion, or want to move to another outfit. What will your social intelligence report say about you?
There is no escaping the growth and influence of this information sector. Our lives become less private with each passing day. Events once preserved only in memory are now available online, archived forever. Be careful what you do, what you say, and to whom you express your opinions. Consider how a casual comment might be interpreted out of context. Preserve your good name and reputation, because in the end it’s all you have.