THE ASASHI SHIMBUN
October 17, 2021 at 07:00 JST
When a company hosted a gathering for students it was recruiting, officials told them about a new service yet to be made public. Despite warnings about its confidentiality, one recruit tweeted about it.
Because of that lapse, a rival company learned about the service before it could be registered as a trademark.
The original company suffered a huge loss from that lone tweet.
That bitter experience is why it turned to the services of Tokyo-based Kigyou Cyousa Center Co. (KCC), which investigates the social media histories of job applicants to help firms weed out potential problem employees.
“Companies are scared of online issues and how fast and far they can spread once they go viral,” said Hiroshi Tsunoda, 51, the head of KCC’s business department. “We live in an age when business operations can be affected if staff members post questionable content. I think companies can’t help but to run checks to see if (applicants) can use social media properly.”
Glued to their computer screens in a nondescript room in a multi-tenant building in Tokyo’s Iidabashi district, three KCC investigators silently pored over a job application submitted to a finance company.
Their mission was to track down social media accounts that the job applicant, a woman in her 20s, was anonymously posting from and examine the nature of her comments.
It did not take long before they discovered that the woman was working a second job, which is against the rules of her current employer.
They compiled a report that described her as “problematic.”
The investigators spend one to two hours checking into each person before they submit a report to the client. Candidates are often evaluated on a four-point grading system ranging from “A,” which means they are completely free of problems, to “D” when they are not recommendable.
“It’s like a report card,” Tsunoda said.
When the three investigators ran a check on another applicant, a man in his 20s who was seeking to join the same company as the woman, they found out he was promoting a health product purportedly effective against the new coronavirus on social media.
The Consumer Affairs Agency has warned against using this product because its marketing slogan made baseless claims at a time when many businesses were trying to capitalize on the public’s anxieties amid the pandemic.
Demand for investigative services like this has quickly grown over the past few years among companies actively recruiting.
But the practice is also attracting controversy, with some worried about its moral implications--especially if investigators get details wrong--and others questioning whether it can add more signal than noise to the hiring equation.
When asked if companies should be turning to this kind of third-party investigation to identify problem job applicants, an official from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which regulates hiring practices, frowned on it.
“It is undesirable because there are concerns that information irrelevant to their aptitudes and abilities can be collected and affect the recruitment process,” the official said.
A KCC representative said the company only views accounts and information made public on the internet, adding that job seekers consented to the background check when they submitted their job application forms.
“We pay close attention to stay compliant with laws and regulations,” the representative said.
BUSINESS BOOMING AMID PANDEMIC
KCC was originally a private detective agency that would offer to tail people and investigate relationship troubles.
But with online interviews becoming a common practice for hiring amid the pandemic, many companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get a good read on interviewees.
KCC saw an opportunity and launched the service in September 2020.
Its main customers include financial institutions, IT firms, insurance companies and medical-related businesses.
KCC has now investigated the online activities of more than 1,000 individuals on behalf of more than 100 companies. It has uncovered discriminatory comments, cases of leaked classified information and other problematic instances that can make candidates non-starters.
To find their secret accounts, KCC uses their job application forms as a reference to search for anonymous accounts containing the same personal information, including their birthplace, alma mater and birthday. Those accounts are compared with accounts opened under the applicants’ true names.
It also takes into consideration photos, followers, posting patterns and other elements of their real accounts.
At least one person it investigated had more than 10 accounts, the company said.
“They think they can keep themselves hidden, but they are not thorough enough,” Tsunoda said. “They leave many hints.”
Another investigative firm called Soluna, based in the capital’s Chuo Ward, said the number of requests it received to conduct checks grew around 2.5 times in the business year ending in March 2021 from a year earlier.
“The internet is filled with rumblings of pandemic-related distress while it is difficult to arrange face-to-face interviews,” said Soluna President Kazunori Misawa, 53. “Companies are increasingly worried about the hidden aspects of job applicants.”
Boasting that it can shed light on the true nature of job seekers by looking into their online activities, Soluna launched its “Netto no Rirekisho” (online resume) service in fiscal 2018 to evaluate whether some applicants could be liabilities.
The company has run checks on nearly 30,000 people. It found less than 30 percent were engaging in problem behavior online, such as posting abusive comments, slander or disinformation.
The number of its client companies has grown to 390.
“It is difficult to bring things under control once there is backlash over something. I think they want to avoid trouble,” Misawa said.
The company uses its in-house software system to identify patterns to find multiple accounts used by job seekers and automatically search for nearly 450 keywords, including “moron” and “die.”
If the account is anonymous, it is scrutinized over whether it is actually managed by the person in question, and four staff members will examine pictures of faces in conjunction with other materials for confirmation.
The company said it is careful not to violate any laws or regulations, adding that it only collects data in a fair manner and excludes information that could lead to discrimination in the hiring process.
“You can only see their faces through resumes and interviews, which they have elaborately prepared for. Companies have an incredibly insufficient amount of information about the true nature (of applicants),” Misawa said. “We need resumes for the internet age.”
CONCERNS RAISED ABOUT DISCRIMINATION, HARM
The Employment Security Law prohibits recruiters from collecting personal information about applicants’ race, ethnicity, birthplace, economic situation and other similar demographic details, along with their beliefs and opinions, their views on life, favorite books and social movements they express interest in.
The labor ministry’s guidelines for business operators require them to implement recruitment standards based on the aptitudes and abilities of applicants.
It also warns that conducting background checks on applicants’ families or their living conditions could dredge up information mixed with scurrilous rumors, presumptions and prejudice.
Some experts point out that small mistakes made in filtering applicants like this can have a big effect on people’s lives.
That is something Hisamichi Okamura, a member of the Osaka Bar Association who is well-versed in the protection of personal information, is concerned about.
“It is important to make sure that secret accounts analyzed by investigative firms are indeed ones used by the subjects, and that there are no account mix-ups or spoofing,” he said. “If there is a mistake, it could significantly affect the student’s life.
“If an investigative company compiles a report based on an analysis of a different individual and submits it to the recruiter, it could wreak havoc on the student.”
Junichiro Nakagawa, an online news editor who is familiar with social media, suggested the industry is predatory.
He said that investigative firms frantically search for careless social media posts made by students out of their “youthful follies” that they have “unwittingly left online.”
“It is in the same vein as those who dig up past failures of other people to prompt condemnation and find joy in bringing them down,” he said. “This background checking has gone too far. If these checks become widespread, the entire society would flinch.”
(This article was written by Kengo Ichihara and Daisuke Yajima)
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