Ashley and the Ostrich

Topics: HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

image of Ashley Madison website

The real issue exposed by the Ashley Madison hack is that aggregate data is incredibly useful for people both inside and outside the organization.

The blogger world consumes news like a vacuum cleaner eats dust. That’s its job. With every interesting news tidbit comes a cascade of insight, opinion, and attempted relevance. Although the range of opinion is usually narrow, this interpretation and curation process helps our industry understand its relation to the world.

It’s particularly complicated when the news involves new ideas.

For years now, it’s been possible to acquire data about individuals for commercial purposes. Recruiting Departments have been at the forefront of the commercialization of personal information. Before there were job boards, there were physical mailing lists and databases available in 1980’s vintage computer timeshare services.

Recruiters consume information like the blogger world consumes news.

The Ashley Part.

To date, the collection of information has had a very individual feel. Most discussions of ethical data collection (privacy) center on individuals, their interests, and their behavior. From this perspective, the idea that an HR Department would look into the publicly available database of Ashley Madison subscribers is possibly over the top. Certainly, that’s what the vast, vast majority of the bloggers and pundits have told us.

They have told us (including our own Heather Bussing) that looking at this data is a violation of privacy. If not legally, then ethically, this is somewhere HR should not tread. Awful things will happen if you do the thing that is possible and practical to do. “It’s the new Pandora’s box,” they say.

That’s the ostrich part.

HR Departments are being irresponsible if they don’t attempt to understand (using the data) the implications of the data. HR is no longer just about individuals and the data inside the company. HR has a deep investment in external data and the things you can know about employees.

It’s not just surveillance of employees. It’s what you need to do to see how the outside world views the company. If the company doesn’t know how it is seen (particularly by potential employees), how can it possibly understand how to message prospects? If it doesn’t know what people think about it, how can it respond?

The ostrich crowd are sure that the value of an intelligent understanding of the employment brand is worth less than a potential infringement of employee privacy. It’s the sort of pristine argument that causes HR to have the credibility problems that haunt it. The value of the aggregate data is significantly greater than individual transaction data.

That same principle explains why NSA finds so much value in telephone metadata.

The real issue exposed by the Ashley Madison hack is that aggregate data is incredibly useful for people both inside and outside the organization. Here’s why:

At 13.5 Million registrations, the Ashley Madison database represents a significant slug. There are about 85 Million men in the workforce, 13.5 Million is roughly 16%. Imagine what you can learn about the world. (A big assumption here is that only people with jobs could afford to join the club.)

It won’t be long until there is something like an Ashley Madison index. Let’s call it the AMI. On average, a company should expect that 15% of male employees turn up in the index. That would be a baseline of 15.

Isn’t it reasonable to assume that there’s a profound difference between a company with a 0% AMI score and 30%? Shouldn’t the company know and manage this? In a world where there is increasing sensitivity to gender based issues, don’t you think that entire classes of people will start to evaluate potential employers (as well as potential suppliers) based on useful proxies like this?

Creating the index is a no-brainer. The simple coding required to see which of your employees is on the list involves a phone call and a day. No more. As the data sits in the public sphere, it’s inevitable that someone will do this.

The case under consideration is not so important. If not the Ashley Madison hack, then the next one. You simply have to count individual data in order to get to the aggregate picture. Counting the individual bits is where the problem lies. Each individual in the overall group runs the risk of being exposed to some sort of ethical violation or embarrassment by the counting.

Still, the need to characterize the overall enterprise is going to drive the examination forward.

If HR is truly in charge of the employment brand and the candidate experience, knowledge and awareness of these issues is critical. You can not create a message that works when obvious blind spots are not accounted for. That’s keeping your head in the sand.

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HR Tech Weekly: Episode #34: Stacey Harris and John Sumser

HR Tech Weekly Episode 34 with Stacey Harris and John Sumser.