I recently applied, and attended an interview, for an online community manager role at a prominent Melbourne based company that operates an online market for digital goods including software and media. Let’s call them Embargo. A few days after the interview I received a phone call from the company. Unfortunately for me they had chosen another candidate for the role.
They offered me some feedback about my performance in the interview. They said that while all my answers to their questions were more than satisfactory, which indicated that I had all the skills and experience required to be successful in the role, they were concerned about two issues.
First, I had mentioned in the interview that I am concerned about my privacy online. I asked to what extent the community manager needed to be publicly identifiable online, specifically in terms of a photo of them being published alongside their name in public facing websites and forums, effectively providing metadata about the image for search engines to index.
I said I was very reluctant to allow my identity to be published in this manner. The issue baffled them and they didn’t know how to respond. I explained that being visually anonymous was important to me. I have always known that being anonymous is an asset as a restaurant reviewer. I have always protected my name and my image to do my best to remain anonymous. Furthermore, I explained that I had suffered a nasty period of online stalking and real world harassment in 2010 that continued until 2012.
They suggested during the interview that the use of an avatar could be a solution and I agreed with that. I indicated that it was also acceptable to use a real photo of me in secure environments, such as intranets and member-only forums. I have no problem using Skype to talk to remote clients and stakeholders. Photos in public online media and thus search engines are my main concern.
Over time I have managed to remove (as far as I can tell, and with the cooperation of friends) all images of me from the internet. I believe it is currently impossible to find any image of me in search engine results and I’d like it to remain that way. I also benefit from having a very common name (Brian Ward is nearly as common as John Smith). There are many of us for search engines to find and that helps me to disappear into this virtual crowd.
After the interview, my interest in privacy became an issue for Embargo. An inconvenience they couldn’t be bothered dealing with. An HR issue they’d never thought of and one they now reluctantly acknowledged they would need to address in future. Indeed.
The second issue of concern to them was the tone or attitude I had expressed in a blog post. They didn’t mention which one, but I suspect it was my article about how a previous potential employer, Incsub, offered me an illegal contract that violated by workplace rights. I am aware that there is some relationship or connection between Incsub and Embargo. They’re similar entities doing similar things in Melbourne. Big fish in a small pond far from Silicon Valley.
The person who had interviewed me (and who was the manager of the position) indicated through what they said that they believed they could judge my communication skills and workplace professionalism through how I write as an individual in my personal life.
I protested. I told them that it was narrow-minded and unjustifiable of them to assume that I am incapable of moderating my behaviour based on context and circumstance, such as whether I am acting in a personal capacity or as an employee. That they had no evidence to base this assertion on.
They admitted that there was nothing in my interview performance they didn’t like in terms of my communication skills. They also admitted, in relation to this issue, that they were judging me entirely on my blog. I said that their arbitrary and irrational judgement was inappropriate and discriminatory. The manager hastily withdrew the entire comment and got rather flustered.
I’ve written at length previously about work / life separation, and specifically in the context of the online world, and the ideas need repeating. Employers do not own us. What we lawfully do in our own time is our own business and must not be used to judge us or discriminate against us in the workplace.
Embargo expects potential employees to give up their right to determine and manage their own privacy. They also expect them to give up all rights to free speech, such as important legal or political speech about workplace rights.
This is the current state of the information industry. Local players pose and pretend they’re Silicon Valley companies operating under the conveniently lax employment laws that exist in the US. It’s very inconvenient for them that Australia has compulsory annual leave and other fundamental industrial protections for workers.
It’s also inconvenient for them to have workers talking about these conditions and helping each other. Incsub threatened to sue me for defamation for my entirely factual reporting of their unconscionable behaviour. I hope my action led to some of their staff obtaining significant amounts of back-pay for illegally withheld annual leave.
Complaining about workers’ rights in the information industry is a lonely business. No union is an obvious fit for highly educated and skilled knowledge economy workers like me. Unions are out of favour with white collar workers in particular. They now seem to be as corporate and corrupt as the corrupt corporations and conservative governments they oppose.
Most people are too passive and scared of conflict to stand up for themselves. But if we in Australia say nothing about employers trampling and undermining our rights we will end up as vulnerable and badly treated as employees in the US. It would be better for employers not to investigate employees via social media, but there’s no stopping it now.
What should be changed is how this is viewed by the law. There’s a gap there too. As I discovered in my complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman about Incsub, the Fair Work Ombudsman’s office was very reluctant to admit that complaints about discrimination at the interview stage prior to employment are something they can investigate. They did their best to shift responsibility elsewhere.
Discriminating against potential employees for their harmless personal opinions, which are irrelevant to their employers, should be illegal. Asking such questions or researching such behaviour should be understood by employers to be as unacceptable as asking interviewees what their religion is.
Employers are not helping themselves through such actions. They don’t understand that the intellectual capacity I exercise in writing as a hobby is the same intellectual capacity I could flex for their benefit, if only they could overcome their pathetic indefensible small-mindedness.