In Defense of Bozeman

The Montana city has caught lots of flak for its hiring practices, but let's take a different look.

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There was big news this week out of the city of Bozeman, Mont. Seems that job applicants were asked to supply Bozeman officials with the usernames for their social media accounts, as well as the passwords, as part of the background check process.

Commentators piled on Bozeman city officials, ultimately leading to Friday's announcement that they were no longer asking for such information. It was a win for HR and the privacy-concerned everywhere.

But since most of us just got the rabid version--“Can you believe what Bozeman just did?!”--I thought I would come to their defense.

First, Bozeman is an awesome place. It is beautiful--blue sky, great views, even greater people.

We all know that governments and companies are doing background checks--and with good reason. Suppose a city employee working at the public pool is found out later to be a child predator/molester. Think local parents would buy into a more complete background check? Still, privacy issues are of concern to me, too.

But, I read the city memo that explains the origin of this hiring practice. (The memo is posted on the city's Web site.) Reading it made me feel better about Bozeman. The city manager writes: "This was an honest mistake. Human Resources, our Police and Fire Departments were doing something they believed was consistent with our core values."

I think well-meaning people make simple mistakes. I imagine that some HR person in charge of doing background checks was checking out sites such as MySpace and Facebook and thought, “Sure would be easier if I had the username and password.” So, at the next interview, they asked the applicant for it. And the applicant, needing the job badly, gave it to them, which made the background check process simpler and faster.

This is not exactly the same thing, but one of our managers asks potential sales reps, “What do you really want to do? It’s not sales, is it?” You would be surprised at how many people say, “No, I really want to be in marketing, not sales.” For us, this is an immediate disqualifier, as we want people who really want to be in sales.

Every employer looks for simple and effective ways to screen applicants. Sometimes, though, even good employers can take it a little too far.

G.L. Hoffman is a serial entrepreneur and venture investor/operator/incubator/mentor. Two of his companies have traveled the entire success path from the garage to IPO. Currently, he is chairman of JobDig, and his blog can be found at WhatWouldDadSay.com or at JobDig.com.