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5/31/2007
07:18 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Should Companies Hire People With Black Marks On Their Internet Histories?

An international retailer finds a great candidate to head up its store in Shanghai. But a bit of last-minute Googling turns up information about political activism against the Chinese government. Should she still get the job?

An international retailer finds a great candidate to head up its store in Shanghai. But a bit of last-minute Googling turns up information about political activism against the Chinese government. Should she still get the job?

That's a case study posed by the Harvard Business Review. As blogger danah boyd points out, similar situations are increasingly coming up for workers in the millennial generation, and their potential employers.

boyd, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, specializes in studying how teens and 20-somethings in the millennial generation use technology and social media. She advises corporations and speaks at conferences -- I had the privilege of hearing her speak, and meeting her, at the eTech conference in March.

The millennials are a generation that's used to living its life in public. Each one of them is a microcelebrity, like Lindsey Lohan or Paris Hilton with an audience of a dozen or so, with every utterance, foolish relationship decision, and drunken escapade plastered all over MySpace or Facebook, often with pictures and video. That stuff lasts forever.

They're foolish, passionate, committed, fickle, they abuse drugs and have promiscuous sex. In other words, they're like every generation of teens and 20-somethings before them. But the difference is that earlier generations had privacy. They got older and their youthful foolishness was forgotten by all but a few people (and those people were participants in the foolishness, and therefore have good reason to keep their mouths shut).

The millennials don't have the luxury of forgetting. Their foolishness is memorialized for anyone with Google access.

In the Harvard Business Review case study, we're not talking about youthful foollishness. We're dealing with a young woman who put her social conscience to work for a good cause at a very early age.

The Harvard Business Review article describes Hathaway Jones, a privately owned U.S. luxury retail chain trying to appeal to a younger demographic and overcome the marketplace perception that they're stodgy. They brought in Fred Westen to turn the company around. As part of that turnaround, he announces a plan to move into the Chinese luxury goods market, which is growing at 70%.

Westen is thrilled to find Mimi Brewster, the daughter of a prep school friend, to head up the company's flagship store in Shanghai. Mimi grew up in China, speaks both Mandarin and the local dialect, has a great resume, and knows the youth clothing retail industry. In other words, she's a dream candidate.

But the head of HR does some Googling, and finds a story in a 1999 alternative newspaper that finds Mimi, then a freshly minted college grad, was leader of a "nonviolent but vocal" protest group against the World Trade Organization and China in particular.

The case study concludes: "If he hires Mimi, and her past conduct becomes widely known, his company's expansion overseas could be set back. But rising stars like Mimi don't walk in the door every day. Should Fred hire her despite her online history?"

Read boyd's response by following the link above.

My $0.02: 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.

What do you think? Should the retail chain hire Mimi?

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