The employee market is changing drastically in 2020. But there are expectations and rules that will always stay the same. I recently had to rescind a six-figure job offer from an excellent candidate because of his wife’s social media habits. Quite frankly, I was shocked that I was even put in this position. But some people never mature, and it has the potential to destroy their careers. This fact of life means that businesses must be vigilant and ensure the quality of the people they bring into their organisations. Fair or not, social media can extend this quality control beyond the candidate all the way to their loved ones. After all, we are all known by the company we keep.
Our Image, Our Responsibility
At my firm, we are always open to expanding our network of consultants and specialists if the right person comes along. Now and then, someone from my years in the United States reaches out to see if there are any job opportunities. If their experience and results justify it, we sometimes grant them an interview. Recently, we conducted several interviews with a former contact of mine. He is an exceptionally talented salesman, so we envisioned a regional sales director position for the US market. We have extremely high standards for such an important position; if someone is at the director level, then they require substantial investment. The investment includes money, of course, but the real investment involves time and energy. We expend such energy because, as I have learned in Europe, being talented in the US is not enough to ensure international success, which is why many Americans struggle to succeed in Europe. To succeed in international positions, Americans need to learn the sophisticated European business behaviour and strategic concepts that we teach. Thus, each person is their own development project; we have to ensure their improvement across the board. Depending upon the person, this can include the development of their presentation skills, sales skills, networking, publications, written communication, social media image, verbal communication, and appearance.
Anybody we bring in must be able to represent our firm, as well as our clients, at the international level. Thus, those of us making hiring decisions have several burdens to bear. We have a duty to everybody at our firm to ensure that each person we bring in will make the company more successful. Image-wise, the level of every person we bring in reflects the level of the organisation as a whole. We also have a duty to our clients: if we bring in someone who hurts our firm’s image, it also calls into question the decision-making of the person who chose to use our firm’s services. Suffice it to say that a lot is at stake during hiring, and because of that, we are very strict in our selection process.
I am sure that we have missed out on some quality candidates because of this stringency. Still, we simply do not accept any risk when it comes to our image. Admittedly, we are in a fortunate position that allows for such a strict selection because for one sales position, we often receive 200-300 applicants. But most of the time, like in the case of this American sales director, our strict selection process proves to be not only prudent but indispensable.
A train picking up steam
Whenever I had interacted with this candidate, I was always impressed by his ability to get his way. He had this ability to charm most people, and not only that, he could convert this charm into signed contracts. The last time I had talked with him in person, he was clearly someone who was on a fast ascent. He had a great job that he truly enjoyed: the national sales director of a mid-size company. Notably, his success in that position had afforded him a high-level lifestyle, he was dating someone new, and I was happy for him because he seemed genuinely happy. Since then, I moved to Europe, so we fell out of contact until recently. He reached out, and after catching up about our private lives for a bit, he started asking more about our firm.
I answered honestly: our company was growing even more rapidly than I had anticipated, and because of that, I was excited to go to work each day. He informed me that he was on the lookout for an international position. He had already served as a national director at age 30, so working for an international company was a logical next step in his career. Plus, he and his wife (whom he had married shortly after our last talk) were looking to spend more time internationally. There were some small things about the wife’s behaviour that I picked up that I found a little strange, but it did not seem so important at the time. He asked whether he could get an interview with our CEO so he could discuss his skills and background. I said that I would conduct a formal interview with him first, and depending on that interview, I would put him in touch with our CEO.
At this stage, I had mixed feelings. I am always extremely cautious before recommending someone for a position, as that person is a reflection of my judgment. That said, this candidate was a safe bet due to his demonstrated results and proactivity, so I had nothing to lose by interviewing him. He was engaging, persuasive, organised, and energetic. Not only did he seem like someone who could put results on the table in the short and long run, but he also came across as someone with whom we would enjoy doing business. The week before this interview, I had interviewed about 14 senior sales professionals, and this American was head and shoulders above all of them (and I am especially tough when evaluating Americans). He was an objectively strong choice for an interview with our CEO.
The candidate performed very well when interviewing with our CEO. He was perhaps even more impressive than when he was speaking with me. It was one of those business encounters that makes you reflect on your own skillset and lights some competitive fires in you. After a few more discussions regarding the job, we bought him a plane ticket to join us in Budapest for a week to finalise the contract, provide him with an intense few weeks of training, and introduce him to our organisation. Before I make the final hire recommendation for anyone, whether it is for our firm or our clients, we conduct a background check that includes a social media analysis. The candidate and I had discussed social media when we discussed points of development. Since he informed me that he did not use social media, I was not expecting the analysis to produce anything notable. I could not have been more wrong.
The train wreck
While the candidate did not use social media, his wife certainly did. The social media team member conducting the analysis usually sends results via email; this time, he called me to let me know that “we have a serious problem”. I will not include screenshots for obvious reasons, but she had the social media habits of someone who was raised by reality television, someone who refused to grow up.
Mere hours after we agreed to buy the plane ticket for her husband, she posted about moving to Europe, but it wasn’t a celebratory post like you’d expect. Instead of focusing on the opportunity to live in Europe, she complained about the 12-hour flight, the distance from her family, and the language barrier. This situation was so tough for her that “God must be testing her”. Considering that a move to Europe was not part of the job offer, this was an entirely imagined struggle. It bears repeating: this “adversity” was entirely in her head. So, instead of expressing excitement or publicly supporting her husband, she fabricated a story that humiliated him, all to garner sympathy from her followers. Additionally, she shared posts — visible to everyone — about how “grown-ass men” need to stop “gossiping like bitches” about “her man”. Presumably, she wanted people to stop bad-mouthing her husband that she had just humiliated. I had never seen such attention-seeking, selfish behaviour, and her other posts were littered with this type of classlessness. This is not a cultural difference that is accepted in America; it is appalling to sensible people everywhere. Naturally, my gut reaction was to keep anybody associated with her as far away from our firm as possible.
Before I received these literal images, the only image I had of the candidate’s wife had been painted by the candidate himself, and he had tried his best to paint quite a beautiful picture. The person he described and the person she showed herself to be online did not line up. After reading through the posts a few times in disbelief, I reached out to the candidate asking about whether they had made social media announcements. He said that his wife had simply mentioned something “innocent” on Facebook about how “unexpected” life can sometimes be and that she was so excited about the opportunity. When I sent him the screenshots, his initial reaction was shock — he genuinely did not seem to know that his wife had posted such things — and then he switched to defence. He said that he did not lie about the content of her posts because he just repeated what she had told him. In his eyes, he was not guilty of lying just because he had repeated a lie. Besides, her posts were “taken entirely out of context”. Moreover, these posts were not relevant to his job since she never mentioned our company by name. She had always used social media extensively, and it never affected his ability to be a top performer at his previous companies.
But the damage was done. We completely lost faith in this candidate and his long-term viability. Firstly, I lost faith in his word. The picture he painted about his wife was completely inaccurate. When confronted with her behaviour, he simply made excuse after excuse on her behalf. Business is built on trust, and he showed himself to be completely unreliable. Secondly, I cannot rely on a person who spends all of his time with someone who would behave like this during a negotiation process. Imagine what she would say after the contract was signed! Thus, I rescinded the job offer and cancelled the flight to Budapest. The candidate was less than thrilled, and at this point, he showed his true colours by going on offence. We were judgmental, lacked trust, unprofessional, unfair, and we had violated personal boundaries. I found this criticism to be especially rich because the American market is more sensitive to social media than Europe. Americans learn from an early age to use discretion when posting, so even when posting privately, they take caution to avoid anything that could possibly jeopardise their future. Prudent people have been following this advice for well over a decade.
Pausing for self-reflection
One thing I have learned from top businesspeople is that when I receive a critique — even if the source is not so reliable — I need to examine the critique through an objective lens. It is the only way to improve. Thus, based on the candidate’s critiques, I asked myself a lot of tough questions.
Was I too judgmental of “innocent” behaviour?
Clearly, the candidate and I disagreed about what “innocent” behaviour means; I don’t even want to know what “guilty” entails. Just because I have no social media besides an infrequently checked LinkedIn account does not mean I judge those who use social media. It is not my cup of tea, but I understand that certain people enjoy the distractions it provides. When used healthily, social media even has its advantages.
Nevertheless, I do think it is fair to judge the type and quantity of someone’s activity from a business perspective. If someone spends countless hours on various social media platforms each day, I cannot believe that they are fulfilling their professional and personal obligations. One simply does not have enough time and emotional bandwidth. Since sales directors need to influence people to make the best decisions for their companies, their social media presence, direct and indirect, must be professional and reliable.
Should I have treated this as a teachable moment?
There are some things that people should know how to do by their mid-30s, and maintaining basic dignity is one of them. While we are committed to helping our people develop, they have to start from a minimum level; otherwise, they are a waste of time. We cannot teach someone skills that life should have taught them years or decades ago. If someone cannot grow up and leave this juvenile behaviour far in the rear-view mirror, then success will leave them behind.
I started to notice a trend within my network as I approached my late 20s. The most successful people I knew started to drastically reduce the number of people in their network. They focussed on their careers, families, and their closest friends; everybody else fell by the wayside. Those who could not refine their network maintained far more relationships, but each relationship was far more superficial than those of their successful counterparts. I have seen this trend only accelerate in my early 30s. Those who are stuck in their university phase struggle the most to keep up. Some people grow up, while others just grow old.
Was it unfair to reject a candidate based on his wife’s social media activity?
Like it or not, we are all judged by the company we keep. This is especially true for the people we choose as partners because they are a direct reflection of how we make life’s most important decisions. This rule applies to life partners and business partners, and it cuts both ways. Good partners can lift you to new heights. They can make you capable of doing things you never thought possible. Bad partners can drag you down and stifle your potential. Some people never recover from a bad relationship. Accordingly, if you cannot make the right choice regarding your partner, it makes others question what kind of decisions you make when the stakes are far lower.
So, was it fair for us to reject him? Yes. His choice of partner demonstrated his inability to make intelligent long-term decisions. I have never seen a happy, successful businessperson with such an unsupportive partner. It will most certainly affect his long-term development, which is what our company was investing in. Moreover, I must be correct with our firm’s business partners. Would I have been correct if I had closed my eyes in this situation and invited extra risk for our partners? Absolutely not!
Does our company lack trust?
Not at all! But we are extremely selective about who gets it, or rather, who earns it. We would not have it any other way. Our business partners are the same. A business partner’s company is like their child that they are placing into our hands. To do this, they have to have a profound trust in us as people and professionals. Giving out this trust to anybody is reckless, and we must protect our clients, and that means protecting ourselves.
The straw man
A straw man fallacy occurs when someone argues that a person holds a view that is actually not what the other person believes. So, instead of attacking the person’s actual statement or belief, it is the distorted version that is attacked. While writing this piece, I noticed that the real events that transpired with this candidate and his wife seem like a straw man, even though they are true. It was such a distorted situation — her behaviour was just so out of line — that it was almost too easy for me to argue against it. In fact, I questioned whether I should write this story, lest I embarrass myself for supporting such a candidate.
Despite my hesitation, I wrote this story because it confirmed some of my deepest beliefs regarding business and life. Every company performs a cost-benefit analysis when hiring someone. While some business owners focus mainly on monetary costs, we cannot ignore other risks associated with a new hire. Their actions, both positive and negative, end up reflecting on the company they work for. This is especially true for small and medium-sized businesses. And because social media only amplifies this exposure, it is far better to minimise risk by adopting a strict vetting process.