Social Media on ChalkboardA recent article in the Wall Street Journal (reported on 11/21/2013 by Jennifer DeVries) discussed a study showing bias in the hiring process when social media is used to screen job applicants. Because of the potential for unlawful discrimination and losing out on otherwise qualified job applicants, the article and study should be a “must read” for every human resource professional or anyone with hiring responsibilities.

Social Media, Recruiting, and Unlawful Discrimination 

In the study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon created four distinct Facebook profiles. The content for each profile corresponded to a Christian, Muslim, heterosexual and a straight male. The researchers then created resumes corresponding to the fake profiles, except the resumes did not contain any non-professional content (i.e., nothing relating to religious beliefs or sexual orientation). These resumes were then sent in response to 4,000 job postings across the U.S. The researchers then were able to track social media searches of the “applicants” and compared these searches to the rate the applicants were contacted for an interview.

The researchers found that the Muslim “applicant” fared the worst in terms of being called in for an interview. The starkest contrast came from the 10 most Republican leaning states where Christians received 17.3% calls for interviews but Muslims recieved only 2.3% calls. As to the gay and straight “applicants,” the straight “applicant” faired slightly better than the gay “applicant.” However, the difference was not as pronounced as between the Christian and Muslim “applicants.       

Best Practices for Lawfully Using Social Media in Recruiting Employees 

The results of this study provide additional confirmation for recommendations my law firm has provided to business clients and HR professionals for years. For example, in February 2012, I presented to HR professionals and warned against the potential for unlawful discrimination in using social media to screen job applicants. See The Intersection of Social Media & Employment Law: The Good, the Bad, and the Confusing.

Some additional best practices for limiting claims of unlawful discrimination against your company’s use of social media searches of job applicants are as follows: 

  • First, if your company is going to use social media in its hiring process then it is important to have a written plan that covers how, when, and what social media will be used. Applying the findings of the above study and to reduce the potential for being accused of unlawful discrimination in the hiring process, employers should resort to social media searches until after a candidate is interviewed. This makes it less likely that your company can be accused of denying an applicant an interview because of a protected characteristic discovered in reviewing the applicant’s social media profile.
  • Second, it is also important for employers using social media in recruiting to be consistent: If your company elects to use social media in your hiring process, make sure HR or managers are conducting the same searches at the same point in the process for every applicant. And be sure to keep records of what is reviewed, especially any posts or information that raises questions about a job applicant’s candor, professionalism, or judgment.
  • Third, for Michigan employers using social media research in the hiring process it is important to understand what is and is not permitted under Michigan’s Social Media Statute applicable to social media accounts of employees and job applicants. I was previously interviewed about this statute and provided best practices for complying with it, which are at this link Employer Recommendations for Complying with Michigan’s Social Media Password Law.

For more information about creating or updating your company’s social media policy, as well as complying with federal and Michigan employment law, contact Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn is a Michigan employment attorney who regularly assist employers and HR professionals in responding to employment law challenges, including responding to state and federal EEOC charges of discrimination and, if necessary, litigating such matters.