The big buzzword in the business world these days is “big data,” and while it might be poorly understood (even by those who use it liberally) it is quietly having a very disruptive effect on big companies, especially when it comes to hiring.

Matt Stevenson is the lead of the North American workforce analytics and planning practice at Mercer, a company that has been watching the evolution of big data for the past 20 years. “To say that it’s changing recruitment is an understatement,” Stevenson says. But what exactly has changed and how does do those changes affect job-seekers?

The LinkedIn Behemoth

Perhaps the single biggest source of “big data” for employers is LinkedIn. What makes data “big” is the ability for a computer to read and sort that data. Stevenson points out that LinkedIn is “big data in the way that most folks can only dream of big data.” It works like this: Large employers pay LinkedIn to complete a “scrape” of their members, searching for all of the people who fit the employer’s criteria, which might include location, education, past experience, number of recommendations, etc.

For LinkedIn users in established careers, this can be great. Depending on the work you’ve done and market conditions, you could suddenly have companies coming to you with offers, instead of the other way around. But what if you’re just starting out or are trying to switch career paths?

“For people who are trying to break into the labour market they are kinda locked out of that,” Stevenson says. Unless your profile has what the employer is looking for, you simply won’t hit their radar.

The situation is even grimmer for those without university or college degrees.

“Semi-skilled folks or those who didn’t finish high school, they are at the losing end of this,” he notes. “There is less willingness to take a chance on a ‘sub-perfect’ person when you can find so many other people.”

Employers Look In Before They Look Out

Another source of big data in the HR world comes from companies’ own employee records. In large corporations these HR systems can be a treasure trove of information. When hiring managers look to the results of an internal big data analysis, it can sometimes remove potential employees from consideration before anyone sees their application. Even something as seemingly innocuous as where you live can have an affect.

In an attempt to reduce a high employee turnover rate, Gate Gourmet gathered data from their HR systems. What they found was that the distance employees had to travel to get to work was one of the biggest reasons staff was leaving. So, the company started targeting candidates who lived closer. Anyone outside of the geographic sweet spot was out of luck.

As uncomfortable as it may seem to have a numbers-based approach determine the fate of your employment, it can also yield benefits.

Google is a company known for its data-driven approach to just about everything. Jimmy Taylor, co-founder at Novotus, a recruitment process outsourcing firm based in Austin, TX, cites an example from within Google, in which a Google-written algorithm “helped them understand that their recruiters were screening out qualified engineers who would be successful.” Sometimes the numbers work in your favour.

What About Social Media?

Perhaps surprisingly, sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are not necessarily being used as big data sources.

Angela Preston, Vice President of compliance and General Counsel at Ohio’s EmployeeScreenIQ, says that when recruiters do look at your social profile, they’re simply making sure there’s nothing outrageous. “In my experience, employers and recruiters are not probing too deeply unless it’s a sensitive job. Most employers don’t care what you do on the weekends; they just want to know that you’re not a serial killer or child molester,” Preston says.

Stevenson agrees, although he has heard rumblings that some companies are beginning to include automatic, algorithm-based processes to scan social media for red flags.

What Does All This Mean To Me As A Job-Seeker?

You can’t get around big data, but there are some things that you can and should be doing to improve your odds of getting an interview.

The top tips from the experts we spoke to include:

  • Build your resume early in your career, with as many experiences as possible whether paid or volunteer based
  • Update your LinkedIn profile often – there is some evidence that LinkedIn favours the people who do so when they conduct their “scrapes”
  • Google yourself
  • Optimize your profiles online to mirror the qualifications of the type of job you’re seeking
  • Keep your personal information private on social sites (don’t over-share) and try to be aware of your presence online
  • Ask recruiters what types of information they are looking for in a candidate and what types of assessments are being used


Simon_Cohen.jpgSimon Cohen is one of Canada’s most experienced Consumer Tech voices. He created, an award-winning Canadian technology blog which had an audience of over 500,000 monthly visitors. He has appeared as a guest numerous times on national TV and radio programmes, including Canada AM, Sync Up (a weekly segment on CTV News Channel) and App Central. He is currently an independent writer and editor contributing to various publications, but you can always find his thoughts and musings on his blog at