Don’t apply for a job, or post to Facebook, without reading the results of this applicant discrimination study

hiringA small but sizable minority of employers in the most conservative regions of the country use online search tools to screen out job applicants based on religion, a practice that is likely illegal, according to a study published Wednesday by Carnegie Mellon University.  The study also found no evidence of bias against gay job applicants.

The research suggests employers are using social media sites and other tools to conduct background research on job applicants, and job hunters might be surprised at the items on their profiles that are hurting their chances of getting an interview.

“The rise of blogging, social networking sites,and other Web 2.0 or social media services has, created a new arena for labor market matching, but also for labor market discrimination,” the researchers said.

Carnegie Mellon researchers sent out 4,183 fake resumes in response to job postings for white-collar jobs around the country.  The resumes were designed to be identical, but for one thing: the applicants’ social media profile made clear the applicant was Christian, Muslim, straight, or gay. Such personal information could not be gleaned from the applicants’ cover letters, resumes, or names.

Nationwide, the fake Muslim candidates were only slightly less likely to receive a call-back for an interview — 16 to 14 percent —  a result that was not statistically significant.  But when researchers narrowed the results using Gallup’s method for selecting the 10 most conservative states in America, the Muslim candidate was called back only 2 percent of the time when resumes were sent to jobs in that group of states, compared to 17 percent for the Christian candidate.  There was no statistical difference in the 10 states identified as most liberal.

Both nationally, and among those state groups, the survey found no difference  between straight and gay applicant callback rates.

“The findings suggest that although hiring discrimination via Internet searches and social media may not be currently frequent or widespread … the online disclosure 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,” wrote researchers Alessandro Acquisti and Christina M. Fong.

The study comes with numerous qualifiers.  It wasn’t easy for the researchers to know for sure that employers saw the applicants’ online profiles; social media sites don’t allow users to track clicks to that level of granularity, for example.  So the Acquisti and Fong estimated how often employers searched for online profiles using Google keyword trends data, for example.  Even with that, they were only able to calculate that somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 corporations looked up applicants’ social media profiles.

The researchers also note that the results relating to conservative states is correlational, not causal.  The researchers knew nothing about the political views of the hiring managers making decisions, for example.

Still, Acquisti said the results are “robust,” even after controlling for numerous other factors.

The findings offer important insights to job seekers. For example, this year CareerBuilder.com said in a survey of 2,100 hiring managers, 24 percent said they “occasionally” search social media, while 5 percent “always use it” when considering applicants.  The Carnegie Mellon study is among the first to confirm such results with empirical data. U.S. Companies screen job applicants using Facebook, fair or not.

Second, removing embarrassing photos might not be enough to prepare for a job search. Employers may be screening out job hunters based on numerous criteria and potentially unpredictable information posted about applicants.

While it’s illegal to ask certain questions during a job interview — questions about religion are not allowed, for example — that doesn’t stop firms from using other tools to identify such personal characteristics.  The Carnegie Mellon study suggests that even though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said such practices can be illegal, companies do it anyway, perhaps because they are unlikely to get caught.

While the Carnegie Mellon study did not find bias against gay applicants, it didn’t test for other forms of bias that firms may use to screen out applicants, such as age. The practical implications for job applicants may be to consider even further limiting the information that’s publicly available about themselves online.

Acquisti, however, hesitates to offer such advice.

“It would be a sad world indeed the world where my advice to others is to self-censor and hide key aspects of our identities for fear of discrimination,” he said to me. “And yet, the manuscript does suggest that a tension exists between the legislator’s attempt to prevent certain information from being used in the hiring process, and the evolution of information technology which is nudging us to reveal that information in a manner that is publicly available to anyone. I do not have a good solution to this problem, but the hope is that transparency can act as disinfectant: talking about these issues may, hopefully, marginalize discriminatory behavior.”

You can download a copy of the study (PDF) here. 

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About Bob Sullivan 1638 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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