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Social sites used to discriminate

December 2, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By George Brown

A recently re-released study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University researchers’ claims evidence that the information one shares in online social networks could be used to discriminate against them during the hiring process.  The findings suggest that, while hiring discrimination via Internet searches and social media does not seem widespread, the impact of revealing certain traits online can have a significant effect on the behavior of employers who look online for candidates’ personal information.

Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology and public policy at CMU’s H. John Heinz III College, and Christina Fong, senior research scientist at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, tested the impact that information posted on a popular social networking site by job candidates can have on employers’ hiring behavior.

“Our experiment focused on a novel tension: the tension between the law — which, in the United States, protects various types of information, making it risky for certain personal questions to be asked during interviews — and new information technologies, such as online social networks — which make that same information often available to strangers, including interviewers and employers,” Acquisti said.

Many job seekers nowadays reveal personal information online that is not easily detectable in personal interviews, and which may even be illegal for employers to request or use in the hiring process.  So much more can be gleaned about a prospective hire from her online presences. A tweet can reveal place of worship. A blog post can imply sexual orientation.  A photo on LinkedIn can show race or age. A comment on Facebook or an image on a social media profile can suggest family status.

“While it appears that a relatively small portion of U.S. employers regularly searches for candidates online, we found robust evidence of discrimination among certain types of employers,” Fong said.

The researchers first used a survey experiment involving more than 1,000 online participants to capture reactions to the candidates’ resumes and online profiles, and to test whether or not the candidates’ profiles appeared realistic.

Then, in the field experiment, Acquisti and Fong submitted applications on behalf of the candidates to real job openings at more than 4,000 U.S. employers.  The researchers measured the number of interview opportunities a Christian candidate received relative to a Muslim candidate, and the number of interview opportunities a gay candidate received relative to a straight candidate. They also collected data on the states and counties in which jobs were located and on the firms that listed the openings. Some have raised concerns about how the research was done by violating the most social sites’ prohibition against fake identities, but the university ethics review board approved the study.

“Our survey and field experiments show statistically significant evidence of hiring bias originating from information candidates shared on their online profiles,” Fong said. “Both by itself and controlling for a host of demographic and firm variables, our Muslim candidate was less likely to receive an interview invitation compared to our Christian candidate in more politically conservative states and counties.”

The researchers point out that, because the political leaning of states and counties in the field experiment cannot be randomly assigned, the results should be interpreted as correlational, not causal.

In both the survey and field experiments, Acquisti and Fong detected less bias based on the sexual orientation of the candidates. Interview rates for the gay candidates were similar to those for the straight candidates.

The findings suggest that, while hiring discrimination via Internet searches and social media does not seem widespread, the impact of revealing certain traits online can have a significant effect on the behavior of employers who look online for candidates’ personal information.

“Employers’ use of online social networking sites to research job candidates raises a variety of notable implications, since a vast number of job candidates reveal personal information on these sites that U.S. employers can’t ask in an interview or infer from a resume,” Acquisti said.

“I advise employers that it’s not a good idea to use social media as a screening tool,” said James McDonald, a partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP who specializes in employment law. “You need to control the information you receive so you’re only getting information that is legal for you to take into account.”

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