Social Media Recruiting Has Similar Risks as Word of Mouth


By Allen Smith January 6, 2015

Just as word-of-mouth recruiting can lead to discrimination claims if it is the sole method of recruiting used in a nondiverse workforce, “recruitment performed solely through social media could lead to potential discrimination issues,” Susan Gross Sholinsky, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green in New York City, told SHRM Online.

“Word-of-mouth recruiting is not per se prohibited as a sole means of recruiting,” noted Scott Fanning, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Chicago. “The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] actually takes the position that in a racially diverse workforce, word-of-mouth recruiting ‘can be an effective way to promote diversity.’ ”

But he added that “in a nondiverse workforce, the EEOC takes the position that it can become a ‘barrier to equal employment opportunity.’ The reason for this is that if an employer’s workforce consists primarily of members of one race, word-of-mouth recruiting will tend to get the word out only to members of that same race. This can lead to the applicant pool for a given position not reflecting the diversity in the labor market.”

Similarly, social media being used as the sole method of recruiting poses risks “because of the demographics of the users of such sites,” Sholinsky said. “According to Pew Research 2013 statistics, 90 percent of 18-29-year-olds who use the Internet use social networking sites, whereas only 65 percent of individuals age 50-64 using the Internet also use social networking sites."

Sholinsky remarked that “some social networking sites, such as Twitter, have an even larger gap in user demographics based on age than other sites, such as LinkedIn. For example, statistics I’ve seen show that while 30 to 42 percent of 19- to 29-year-olds use Twitter, only 2.6 to 5 percent of those older than 65 use it. In addition to age, studies show that the number of white users of certain networking sites is more prevalent than use by nonwhites. Generally, therefore, focusing recruitment efforts solely on social media sites could create the same types of barriers the EEOC warns against when discussing nepotism and word-of-mouth recruitment policies.”

Social media recruiting, like word-of-mouth recruiting, may reflect an attempt to find workers who will be a good fit at an organization. “It’s understandable that employers want to find individuals who will be a good fit and that is fine,” said Ginger McCauley, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Washington, D.C. “Employers should be careful, however, that their definition of ‘good fit’ is not influenced by racial or gender biases or stereotypes. This can be difficult, as biases and stereotypes often are subconscious. One way for employers to avoid this slippery slope is for them to ask themselves, ‘What makes this employee a good fit?’ and then to consider whether biases or stereotypes are playing some role in that analysis.”

Problematic Hiring Practices

In addition to recruiting exclusively through word of mouth at a nondiverse workforce or exclusively through social media, McCauley listed the following as problematic hiring practices:

  • Relying exclusively or primarily upon nepotism in a nondiverse workforce.
  • Posting notices of openings only at the job site when the makeup of the current workforce is not diverse.
  • Recruiting exclusively from nondiverse institutions or from websites geared toward individuals of a particular race, color, religion, sex or other protected class.
  • Homogenous recruiting, such as a largely white municipality situated next to a largely black municipality that hires only its own residents and refuses to advertise in publications that circulate in the black municipality.
  • Obtaining referrals from a source that is known to discriminate, such as an employment agency that sidetracks minority applications.

Double-Edged Sword

But word-of-mouth recruiting, like social media recruiting, “can be a valuable method used by employers to find the best candidates in conjunction with other recruiting methods,” Fanning observed. Word-of-mouth recruiting “is cost-effective, takes minimal effort, leads to candidates who are more fully informed of the position and employers may have more information about the candidate. On the other hand, it limits the potential applicant pool and can potentially lead to discriminatory results if used in isolation.”

According to one study, employees referred by word of mouth are 15 percent less likely to quit, Sholinsky said.

Numbers like this can lead to companies setting up “formal referral bonus programs, offering prizes like iPads, gift certificates or other monetary incentives to enlist their employees to remain active in referring applicants,” she observed.

But be wary of relying too much on one method of recruiting, whether social media or word of mouth. “By relying exclusively on word-of-mouth recruiting techniques to locate individuals that would be a ‘good fit,’ companies may be exposed to the subconscious bias of their employees,” Sholinsky cautioned. “Studies show that individuals are more likely to recommend applicants with similar attributes to themselves. In one particular study, 71.5 percent of those surveyed referred individuals of their own race/ethnicity and 63.5 referred applicants of their own gender.”

Sholinsky noted, “Such recruitment also has a disparate impact on the unemployed, who tend to have weaker networking ties to those in the active workforce.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

Related Article:
Rooting Out Hidden Bias, HR Magazine, December 2014


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