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Business - Written by on Monday, April 13, 2009 17:30 - 4 Comments

The Social Networking Trojan Horse: Recruiting for the NFL

The explosive growth in social networking websites over the last few years has resulted in employers taking notice and using the wealth of personal information that exists about a candidate to make decisions about their employability. This practice has become more widespread in its use, however this has been offset to a certain extent, by a growing understanding among social networking users and the general public, that what goes online is no longer truly private, and that users must take appropriate steps to secure their privacy.

In an unusual twist to these traditional stories, Yahoo Sports posted one last week about how NFL teams apply similar practices to scout out new prospects. Their trick? Befriend the players using fake profiles with pictures of attractive women who are … like, total fans!!! The catch is that these women are a baited lure, and once they accept, the unsuspecting NFL prospect has opened the gates, trojan horse style, to a detailed review of an individual’s comments, profile pages, and pictures.

Typically, when organizations review social networking profiles, they use them as a filter, where any ‘inappropriate’ information or media will get players or employees screened out of the application pool, or even a job.  In 2008, a CareerBuilder study indicates that 1/5 employers use social networking sites to screen applicants, and of those using the tool, 1/3 of managers indicated that they had found information about a candidate that caused them to remove them from consideration. According to Computerworld, of particular note was:

  • Information about alcohol or drug use (41% of managers said this was a top concern)
  • Inappropriate photos or information posted on a candidate’s page (40%)
  • Poor communication skills (29%)
  • Bad-mouthing of former employers or fellow employees (28%)
  • Inaccurate qualifications (27%)
  • Unprofessional screen names (22%)
  • Notes showing links to criminal behavior (21%)
  • Confidential information about past employers (19%)

Back to this story… NFL teams say they benefit from the review of these social networking sites because they allow teams to conduct research on players much faster than before, and with access to a much greater wealth of information. According to Yahoo Sports, Rick Spielman, VP of Player Personnel for the Minnesota Vikings, the Vikings are not unlike most other NFL teams in having someone specifically tasked with reviewing the profiles of player prospects. Their job is to gather as much information as possible that can be used to filter out undesirable candidates, assist in the interview process, and help conduct background checks on players. These are understandable goals, but my concern remains with the process to get to that goal.

How ethical is this practice of using “ghost profiles” – fake profiles that are created to entrap players, and then disappear after the draft – to discover information about potential draft candidates? The issue I have with this practice is that it totally misrepresents the intentions of one party, in what is effectively a lie, in order to place the other party at a disadvantage. Sure the football prospect ought to know better than to have any discriminating information posted on such a loosely private medium, but that does not negate the wrong-doing of the team scout, in using shady practices to unearth that data. And yet, that information was there, in a space that continues to be viewed as gray territory when establishing either a public or private label? Who is right? Who is wrong? Is there even a right or a wrong?

And so I turn to you, what do you think?  What are the issues here and what’s your take? Acceptable? Not?


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Catherine Thorn
Apr 16, 2009 10:58

The main issue here is whether or not the NFL team is wrong for attempting to obtain true information about a candidate, using a method that is ethically questionable. I must agree that operating under false pretences and creating a fake profile to entrap prospective NFL team members is not ethical. Although it is well known that online information is not very secure, it does not mean it’s okay for people to abuse the looseness of security. For example, online banking is known to be much less secure than visiting a physical bank, but that does not mean that someone who is less careful in online banking deserves to be a victim of fraud. Thus, if the football player does not have an open profile on the social networking site, then the NFL team is certainly in the wrong for gaining access to that profile information by means of deceiving the player with a fake profile. Furthermore, information, especially pictures, on such social networking sites is often easily misinterpreted.

Although, in my opinion, the NFL teams are definitely wrong to employ these devious screening tactics, the player is not entirely innocent either. Many players attempt to hide undesirable aspects of their character and of their pastimes. This is understandable if they are not asked about those aspects of their lives, but in many circumstances, it is likely that some players do not answer questions truthfully. Without using social networking sites, it would be difficult for the NFL teams to determine the true character of the players that they will be investing in so greatly. For this reason, I don’t expect the teams to stop using social networking sites as a means for screening candidates, but I do still think they are in the wrong for creating fake profiles. In my opinion, these teams should find another way to analyze potential team members.

Jude Fiorillo
Apr 16, 2009 13:37

Thanks for your insightful comment Catherine!

I have to agree with you that although I find this trickery distasteful, I have absolutely no expectations that the teams using this practice will stop. The simple reason is that there’s a lot of tangible benefit for almost no cost to the organizations engaging in the practice. It’s this lack of cost that I find interesting about this situation, because in the ‘real world’ we have entrenched beliefs about what is right and wrong – although this perspective can change, it tends to be fairly static and the consequences are consistent. For example, tricking an interview candidate in the ‘real world’ into revealing personal (and possibly discrimination oriented) information would usually be considered unethical and bear reputational consequences. In theory the same would apply online as well, but the truth is I just can’t muster the same indignation when the medium is the Internet because i’m not entirely sure how I should feel.

The situation is gray, as is much of the Internet, and there is no comparison to clearly anchor our beliefs absolutely. The rules of engagement are different on the Internet, perhaps because of the physical disconnect, or perhaps because it’s too hard to maintain those static beliefs in an ever changing technological landscape. I think it’s interesting that the Internet challenges some of our traditional perspectives on what is socially acceptable behaviour by applying different elements for consideration. The question is, to what degree does our physical value system get referenced for activity online, how is it confounded by a different set of factors than those in the ‘real world’? How will it change us and the way we interact with the immediate and far-flung reaches of the world…

Linden Head
Apr 17, 2009 10:19

It is unethical for people/firms to misrepresent their intentions. However, I would argue that more responsibility must be placed on prospective applicants/employees. I agree that someone using online banking does not deserve to be a victim of fraud; that being said, I would not be very sympathetic of someone who left their doors unlocked and was robbed.

As screening applicants through social networking sites becomes more common place (and perhaps more importantly, more expected by those being screened) behaviour could evolve in two directions. People could limit social networks to those people that you definitely know; this would limit effectiveness of social networks by inhibiting their fast proliferation. Or, people could ensure that online content is ‘job appropriate.’ If the later is true (which I would hope is the direction taken), I think that it would become common place for prospective employers to simply ask applicants to look through their profile. Having just gone through the interview process I would invite this request, as it is quite challenging to convey personality in a thirty minute, stress filled interview.

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