The new vetting process?

Mozilla CEO controversy raises questions around screening execs
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2014

The resignation of a Silicon Valley CEO is raising some tricky questions about how the vetting process for senior executives is changing.

As social media continues to blur the boundaries between public and private life, what factors should organizations weigh when considering a candidate for a spot in the C-suite?

Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla, resigned just days after becoming the new CEO. Eich stepped down amid controversy over a US$1,000 donation he made to support a 2008 gay-marriage ban in California (Proposition 8). The ban has since been overturned.

Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla, wrote on her personal blog that Eich had always been professional in her experience working with him, but Mozilla has a culture of inclusiveness and supports marriage equality.

“Mozilla’s commitment to inclusiveness for our LGBT community, and for all underrepresented groups, will not change. Acting for or on behalf of Mozilla, it is unacceptable to limit opportunity for anyone based on the nature of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This is not only a commitment, it is our identity,” she wrote.

Mozilla also released a statement affirming its position on the issue.

The case raises broader issues around how the vetting process is changing in response to social media and the ready availability of information on individuals’ personal lives.

Employers more cautious

As access to personal information continues to evolve, employers are generally becoming more cautious, said Kathy Brooks, senior director of leadership and talent practice at Hay Group in Toronto.

“Depending upon the roles, it’s not unusual for organizations to do very thorough investigations, and that can include doing Google searches: What has this person said? What has this person done? Is there anything that they may have commented to a reporter that may come back at a later point?” she said. “Executives — and not just executives — need to be increasingly aware that an action I take today may definitely come back and bite me.”

During these in-depth background screenings, many organizations assess not just skills and qualifications but whether a candidate is a good fit with an organization’s culture.

“When boards are vetting for senior leadership, such as for a CEO, there are two things that have to take precedence. One is, can this person create shareholder value? And, two, are they aligned to our culture? Do they share the same values?” said Brooks.

“So the vetting has to take a look, and typically does take a look, as much at the value systems of the individual as it does their likelihood of being able to bring in the bottom line.”

Of course, this intense level of scrutiny isn’t always realistic when vetting employees for lower-level positions, said Tim Hardie, president and CEO of Hire Performance in Markham, Ont.

“The reason we haven’t gotten into (that service) is... there’s hundreds of different venues you can promote yourself and do stupid things in or good things in — whatever the case might be. And to vet all of those for one company is really almost impossible. You’d have to know every (social platform) there is,” he said.

No room for privacy in C-suite

It’s always a good idea for job-searchers to be aware of how their actions — both online and off — may be viewed by organizations. But for C-suite candidates, it’s non-negotiable. For senior executives, there is no longer a separation between their public and private personas — at least, not on the Internet, said Brooks.

“In senior leadership, there’s never really been a separation — or there hasn’t been for a long time. I think it’s naive of senior leaders to think there is a separation. You’re the face of an organization and you’re the role model for every other person in that organization. So if you have beliefs that are contrary to the organization, then it’s unlikely that you can fulfill those roles,” she said.

“A leader can’t get away with that now — everything is known about them. There’s no privacy and there shouldn’t be an expectation (of privacy).”

As soon as something hits the Internet, it becomes public knowledge, said Connie Stamper, regional vice-president for management resources at Robert Half in Toronto.

“Tattoos on the Internet are forever… that is just the nature of the business now,” she said. “I don’t think that this is something that should change your personal beliefs... we’re still allowed to live private lives. What we have to understand is that private life does not include the Internet.

“We have forgotten that the Internet is not a private place… You need to look for ways to maintain a level of privacy if you are curating a career at the same time.”

And with no privacy, everything we’ve ever done is under the microscope, said Brooks.

“As soon as an announcement is made, there’s somebody somewhere in someone’s past who’s going to pull something up and bring it to the forefront. If we think we have privacy, we’re hugely mistaken.”

Balancing act

So, how can an employer balance the importance of qualifications with the importance of cultural fit?

One way is to measure the candidate’s values against the organizational mission statement or values statement, said Stamper.

“(When considering) somebody’s personal life, their personal habits, their personal activities, et cetera… balance those against the company’s mission statement, against their core values,” she said, adding that you should look for indicators to measure against that “fit” bucket.

“Is it an affront to our values statement over here at ABC company? And if it’s not, and the candidate looks solid, then part of the hiring process should be ‘Let’s see if the candidate can put that in context for us,’” she said.

“If the candidate looks, holistically, like they might be a reasonable solution for an opening, then we’ve got to consider what the context is.”

But if the individual presents a real affront to the organization’s core values, that’s when you should reconsider, said Stamper.

If someone does slip through the screening process and controversial information turns up after the fact, then it becomes a trickier situation, said Brooks.

“The harsh reality is that that may impact business. I may be very good at building business until such time as people start questioning who I am. And when they start questioning who I am, they start questioning the judgment within the organization,” she said.

“Similarly, am I going to want to do business with an organization whose basic values systems are contrary to my own? The likelihood is no — particularly if I have options.”

There’s one central question organizations should consider when deciding what course of action to take, said Brooks.

“Would we have hired him had we known?” she said. “If we had known and we’d still have hired them, then the issue is just managing the fallout, but we’re staying firm with our decision. If it’s one where they say, ‘You know what, we would have paused’ or ‘We might not have hired them,’ then they need to take a look and say, ‘OK, how do we unwind this in a way that actually shows who we are as an organization in the manner that we’re handling this?’”

Ideally, though, a thorough vetting process will prevent such situations from arising in the first place. That’s why background screening is so invaluable, said Hardie.

“It’s important to their company — they need to know who they’re hiring. Their future depends on the person they’re hiring’s past.”

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