Whether or not the Employment Non-Discrimination Act gets a vote in the House later this year might not matter if those doing the hiring keep snooping around applicants' Facebook pages.
A new controlled study by Carnegie Mellon researchers found that as many as a third of U.S. companies search social networks to glean data on prospective hires. When employers encountered Facebook profiles suggesting the applicants' religion as Muslim, the candidate was 14 percent less likely to get a callback than Christian applicants, though the difference is not statistically significant on a nationwide basis. But in some conservative states, such as Alabama, Utah, and Wyoming, the separation was especially pronounced and deemed significant. One's sexuality, also gauged in the study, had no discernible bearing on an employer's decision.
"Technology is making it easier and more frequent to explicitly and implicitly reveal personal information about ourselves … that can be accessed by employers very easily and with very little detection," said Alessandro Acquisti, an information-technology professor and coauthor of the study. The potential for discrimination via social media is "another example of the tension between the law and evolving technology," Acquisti added.
A list of federal laws dating back to the early 1960s prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, age, and sex. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, passed by the Senate earlier this year, would extend such protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. And while some states are exploring legislation that would prevent employers from being able to request social-media passwords from employees, such measures fall far short of what is necessary, Acquisti said.
But social media—and the increasingly loud demand for job-seekers to maintain up-to-date online portfolios on sites such as LinkedIn—creates an added, more subtle avenue through which employers can discriminate. Something as unsuspecting as a photo displaying one worshipping at a mosque or holding a same-sex partner's hand could kill an applicant's chances of getting hired.
"Employers are not allowed to discriminate based on religion, whether they do it secretly or openly," said Heather Weaver, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's unfair to say that if you're a Muslim or a person of a minority faith that you have to hide your social-media profiles more than others."
Due to employment discrimination laws, hiring managers are unlikely to ask you what your religion or sexuality is during an interview. But if they really want to know, they can consult Facebook or Twitter and, depending on how open someone is with their personal data, tease out such information without the applicant ever knowing. Stalking someone's Facebook is a much more covert way of learning personal details, one that didn't exist when laws like the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
How can we prevent this behavior? Short of firms deciding to explicitly instruct human-resources teams to not look at a candidates' online presence, there aren't many safeguards against the practice. What's worse, employment discrimination is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, meaning that a hiring manager might innocently check a Facebook profile without realizing the page's information affects the hiring decision, said Christina Fong, a coauthor of the study.
Current policy does create legal risks for scanning through social-media pages during the hiring process if managers are caught using that information in a discriminatory fashion. Because of that, "you can imagine the practice of abstaining from searching growing," Fong said. She added that the trend is anecdotally apparent, though it is unclear how many firms abide by such a restriction.
Maintaining a good social-media presence can undoubtedly be the difference in getting that next job. But depending on what personal information you share (and where you live), it could also be what keeps you unemployed.
This article appears in the November 27, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.
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