But it's now much more than a quick flick through your profile pictures for signs of a good-time Charlie. "Big data" is increasingly being used to change the recruitment process, from discovering candidates who didn't even know they wanted a new job, to vetting applicants based on their Facebook likes.
"Big data is inevitable," says Andrea Tjoeng, manager at SCOUT Recruitment Software. Scores of tidbits about our preferences and behaviour are being collected each time we log on; where we holiday, what we watch on TV, our favourite restaurants. Targeted advertising remains the main purpose, but not for long.
"This is going to impact recruitment at some point in time," Tjoeng says. "The way things are moving it's going to be sooner rather than later."
Workplace commentator Malcolm King wrote last week that soon, employers would be able to use computer algorithms to vet potential employees based on their social media activity and web browsing history. On ABC radio, an employer named Julie admitted to having excluded a jobseeker because her Facebook profile revealed the applicant was a football fanatic who often dressed up her cat. "It was a football club that I personally detest," Julie said.
Employers checking Facebook pictures is nothing new. But the idea that this could be automated – and a red flag raised against your name by a computer program – struck many as alarming.
The technology is out there, recruiters say, but is generally frowned upon. An application called Charlie will crawl social media to check the name of a prospective client, employee or partner. "Charlie combs through hundreds of sources and automatically sends you a one-pager on everyone you're going to meet with, before you see them," the app boasts.
Charlie is not designed for recruitment and its power to reveal deep-seated secrets about someone appears limited. Cursory research into one of this correspondent's colleagues revealed a penchant for NFL and hip-hop. Another was into fashion and the Western Sydney Wanderers. But the application's strength is that it organises information quickly and centrally, saving precious minutes if you need to get the gist of someone.
SCOUT is developing and testing its own recruitment software using big data, but the intention is to find candidates rather than vet them. Tjoeng says the program, will allow employers to construct a profile of the ideal candidate for a job – and then find that person. Frequently the data will not match an employer's prejudices, she says.
"The ideal profile can be surprising to a hiring manager," Tjoeng says. " This data that we're talking about is a way to make the recruitment decision more objective, more data-driven."
Almost 1.3 million Australians are now on a database called LiveHire, which collects information about their skills, mobility, work preferences and salary expectations. LiveHire aggregates the data and uses an algorithm to predict who is both suitable and available for a given job. "It's like Airbnb for employment," says the company's co-founder, Michael Haywood. People don't advertise the fact they want to buy a car – they just go looking for cars. In the same way, employers should not have to advertise their vacancy, he says.
Headhunting based on data eliminates the need for long and expensive hiring drives, Haywood says, adding tha tcompanies using his database have reduced their average time to hire from 28 days to 5 days or less.
LiveHire does not trawl social media and uses only the information people have decided to upload. "Social media should not be used for employment," Haywood says. He believes it is rarely a good indicator of someone's skills and basing decisions on it can be seen as discriminatory.
Still, he warns applicants to be wary. "People need to understand that they have a digital profile out there and they need to control it," he says.
Tjoeng is well-aware that many people use aliases on social media to protect their privacy – which, if pervasive, would render SCOUT's software close to useless. She believes people will become more open and honest over time, once the initial fear around new technology subsides.
"Ignoring it or fearing it is a waste of time because it's here and it's going to be part of our lives," she says.
By Michael Koziol, posted on stuff.co.nz