Facebook Helps Employers Discriminate. Can We Avoid It?

Hiring managers are unlikely to ask you what your religion or sexuality is during an interview. But they can always consult Facebook.

This picture taken with a fisheye lens shows a man walks past a big logo created from pictures of Facebook users worldwide in the company's Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Nov. 26, 2013, 7:44 a.m.

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.

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