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CyLab's Alessandro Acquisti and Fellow CMU Co-Author Find Employers Discriminate in Hiring Based on Social Media Profiles

posted by Richard Power
November 21, 2013

CyLab researcher Alessandro Acquisti, an Associate Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy at the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University and co-author Christina Fong, Senior Research Scientist at CMU's Department of Social and Decision Sciences have released An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination via Online Social Networks, another important study on the profound impact of online social media, and its many implications and consequences.

According to the Wall Street Journal article that broke the story, the research suggests that not only do employers "use social networks to find evidence of unprofessional behavior, such as complaints about previous employers or discussion of drug use" but that job seekers' social media profiles may also "contribute to more fundamental discrimination."

The researchers focused their experiment on categories like religion and sexuality, which some federal and local laws prohibit companies from using in hiring decisions. "By and large, employers avoid asking questions about these traits in interviews. But now technology makes it easier to find that information," Mr. Acquisti said.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers sent out more than 4,000 fabricated resumes to private firms across the country that had more than 15 employees and were posting job openings online. The jobs included technical, managerial and analyst positions that required either several years of experience or a graduate degree.

Each used one of four male names chosen for their uniqueness, meaning Web searches were almost guaranteed to lead viewers to carefully calibrated Facebook profiles linked to the names. One profile suggested the person was Christian, and another suggested he was Muslim. Two others indicated the person was either gay or straight. (For each candidate, the researchers altered the large background photo that appears on Facebook profiles to reflect the person's supposed interests. The researchers also provided information on activities, interests and favorite quotes that alluded to religion or sexual orientation. The material was chosen based on statistical analysis of existing Facebook profiles for university students.)

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Bosses May Use Social Media to Discriminate Against Job Seekers, Wall Street Journal, 11-20-13

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of the study, with a hyperlink to the full text:

The questions we set out to answer with the experiments we presented in this manuscript were whether or not employers seek and use information online which should not be used in the hiring process, and if they do, how they react to the information they find. The randomized experiments tested for discriminatory behaviors and attitudes of real employers and survey subjects. We focused on the effects of religious affiliation and sexual orientation.

The online experiment suggests that survey subjects with hiring experience are significantly less likely to say they would interview the Muslim candidate than the Christian candidate. We also find greater bias among subjects who self-reported more conservative political party affiliation. These results are robust to demographic controls including income, age, race, religion, and being U.S. born.

Results from the field experiment are broadly consistent with the online experiment. First, the results from the field experiments indicate that a substantial minority of U.S. employers we applied to searched for the candidates online. Second, in the religion manipulation, discriminationagainst the Muslim candidate increases significantly in the fraction of voters that are Republican compared to the fraction that are Democratic.

Taken together, these findings suggest that while hiring discrimination via Internet searches and social media may not be widespread for the companies and jobs we considered in this experiment, the impact of revealing certain traits online may have a significant effect on the hiring behavior of a self-selected share of employers who look online to find candidates personal information.

While some employers openly admit to using social media in the hiring process (Llama et al., 2012), others are being warned about the risks of doing so (Harpe, 2009). Both the EEOC and state legislators have started getting interested in role of Internet and social media in the job search process. At the same time, companies like and have started offering related services arguably shielding firms from the risks associated with doing the search themselves. As noted above, the rise of the Internet and social media has arguably increased theamount of candidates personal and professional information potentially available to employers. The extent to which this additional informational channel will reduce labor market frictions (by allowing better matching of employers and employees) or will in fact lead to more discriminationis likely to be an issue of increasingly relevance for public policy.

Read the full study: "An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination via Online Social Networks."

Read the full press release.

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