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Social Media Becomes a New Avenue for Workplace Discrimination

Posted by Kathy Harrington-Sullivan | Jan 15, 2014 | 0 Comments

When you interview for a position, your interviewer is prohibited in most instances by law from asking you any questions regarding your family situation, religious beliefs or medical history. The goal of the law, of course, is to protect you against discrimination in the hiring process. But did you know you could be discriminated against long before you walk through the door? And that it can come down to what you post on Facebook or Twitter?

HR experts have taught us to be conscious of what we post on social media since potential employers often check up on applicants. Photos or posts about partying, drug use or other illicit or unprofessional behavior can quickly send up a red flag and end the interview process. But posts about your baby registry, church or politics can be equally as damaging to your career.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that employers discriminate against applicants based on information they discover through the individuals' social media accounts – information they would never be allowed to ask.

Could a Bible verse alter your career path?

Researchers for CMU created four fake Facebook accounts that hinted to individuals' sexual orientation and religious affiliation, but kept the names ambiguous in regards to race or nationality. Accounts were organized by Christian or Muslim; straight or gay. They then sent out resumes for 4,000 open job postings, and compared the number of inquiries each applicant received from potential employers.

Overall, there was no discernible difference in the number of callbacks between straight and gay candidates; when comparing Christian and Muslim, there was a noticeable variance. Overall, Christian applicants received 16 percent more callbacks than their equally experienced Muslim counterparts. In states that are identified as conservative and Republican, the difference is even greater. As noted by The Wall Street Journal, Christian applicants were called for an interview 17 percent of the time while Muslims only 2 percent.

Even though the risk for discrimination has been identified, researchers say potential job applicants don't have to completely alter their accounts to remove religious information that they identify with. Moreover, they found the research wasn't “statistically significant” enough to cause panic among job searchers.

Researcher Christina Fong remarked to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Someone might say, ‘I'm Muslim, that's important to me. I don't want to have to be private about this, and I don't want to work at a place that would discriminate against me.' But we don't want people to be unaware of the potential consequences.”

The study also found that currently, about 10 to 30 percent of U.S. firms search a job applicant's social media accounts. However, only 7 percent of 1,000 human resources professionals surveyed say they always check social media when screening an applicant. The number is considerably low considering the high number of employers vetting and interviewing potential employees.

Noted the report, “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 heavier? of a self-selected share of employers who look online to find candidates' personal information.”

As a job applicant, you need to look closely at every item you post on your social media accounts as well as the privacy levels of each account. As researchers stated, you shouldn't have to worry about innocent photos or status updates regarding your religion or other protected characteristics as the law protects you against discrimination in the interview process. However, in today's competitive job market, now's not the time to let your guard down.

About the Author

Kathy Harrington-Sullivan

Kathy Harrington Sullivan is a Partner at Barrett & Farahany who helps potential clients understand the law, clarify their rights, and determine which steps they can take to protect themselves and their jobs.


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