CMU study finds employer discrimination via social media sites

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Social media websites offer many opportunities to get to know a person better -- but sometimes it's better not to know.

Employers trying to screen a job candidate based on Facebook or Twitter or even LinkedIn run the risk of discovering information they're not allowed to have. And a new study suggests that practice could lead to hiring discrimination.

Employers acknowledge using social networking sites to find potentially unprofessional behaviors in job candidates, according to a new study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers Christina Fong and Alessandro Acquisti.

"However, so much more can be gleaned about a prospective hire from her online presence," the researchers wrote. "A tweet can reveal her place of worship. A blog post can imply her sexual orientation. A photo on LinkedIn can show her race. A comment on Facebook or an image on a social media profile can suggest her family status."

Problem is, it's illegal for employers to ask questions about such personal information in a job interview, or to consider such things as religion or sexual orientation in making hiring decisions.

"If you search for an applicant on social media, it's a double-edged sword," said Terrence Murphy, an attorney with Downtown labor and employment law firm Littler Mendelson. "Because of social media, employers can access more information than would be typically available in the hiring process. There's opportunity there to make the hiring decision with additional lawful information," such as evidence of illegal drug use, for example.

It's when that inquisitive hiring manager finds out protected information, even though it's publicly available online, that the problem arises, he said. "You can find out the very things you don't find out in interviews, and -- once you know them -- you can be accused of having used them to make the [hiring] decision."

As part of their field experiment, the CMU researchers submitted resumes and cover letters to actual job openings on behalf of fictitious candidates, identical except for the names, said Ms. Fong. They created online social media profiles for the candidates, so that a Web search for the name on the resume would produce the social sites as results.

The applications were submitted to allow a comparison between two subsets: a gay candidate vs. a straight candidate, and a Muslim candidate vs. a Christian one. These traits were only evidenced by the social profiles the researchers crafted, and were not otherwise available to hiring agents.

The researchers then compared the number of callbacks the applicants received. No discernible difference in callbacks was found between the gay and straight candidate. Overall, the Christian candidate received 16 percent higher rate of callbacks than the identical Muslim candidate, the research found, which was not deemed statistically significant.

But the study did find evidence of discrimination linked to political party affiliation, Ms. Fong said.

Using Gallup polling results from the 2012 presidential election, in states and counties where Republican Mitt Romney received more votes, the Muslim candidate was nearly three times less likely to be invited for a job interview than his Christian counterpart.

"Taken together, the findings suggest that although hiring discrimination via Internet searches and social media may not currently be frequent or widespread (for the types of jobs and companies evaluated in the study), online disclosures of certain traits can have a significant effect on the hiring decisions of a self-selected set of employers who do look for candidates' personal information online," according to the study.

Potential job candidates should not necessarily alter their social media presence to remove religious or other personal information, Ms. Fong said. "Someone might say, 'I'm Muslim, that's important to me, I don't want to have to be private about this, and I don't want to work at a place that would discriminate against me,' " she said. "But we don't want people to be unaware of the potential consequences."

If companies want to screen applicants via online searches, Mr. Murphy said, the proper way to do it would be through a neutral third-party entity, which will conduct the search but not relay any protected information to the employer. And such searches have to be done equally: Have a list of criteria by which you'll judge every applicant, and why it's relevant to the job they would be performing.

Even taking such precautions is not foolproof, Mr. Murphy said, and companies could still find themselves facing a lawsuit from a job candidate who finds out he was screened via social media, since it would be hard to prove that protected information was not factored into a hiring decision.

And, if employers or would-be employers think their extra online research is off the record, they could be in for a rude surprise, Mr. Murphy said.

"Computers don't forget," he said. "There's almost always evidence."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly.


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