Executive Briefing Vol. 59 No. 1 Social media screening can lead to hiring discrimination; poor communication reduces morale.


By By Dori Meinert Jan 1, 2014

Employment lawyers have repeatedly warned HR professionals and hiring managers that looking online for information about job applicants can open their companies up to discrimination and privacy claims.

Now, Carnegie Mellon University researchers have found evidence that viewing candidates’ information on social networks can lead to hiring discrimination.

The researchers created dummy resumes and online profiles of prospective job candidates using material revealed online by actual members of popular social networking sites and job-seeking sites. Then they tested the responses of more than 4,000 U.S. employers.

The researchers focused on discrimination based on protected information, such as sexual orientation and religious affiliation, that is not usually conveyed in resumes or interviews. They also collected evidence indicating whether the employers had searched for the candidates online.

Only 10 percent to 33 percent of the employers searched social networks for job applicant information, the researchers found.

However, among those who did, a Muslim candidate received 14 percent fewer calls to interview than a Christian one. The difference was even greater in conservative countries: There, a Muslim candidate was nearly three times less likely to receive an interview invitation. (To ensure that the response was focused on religion and not ethnicity, the researchers gave their Muslim candidate a non-Arabic name, a Caucasian photo and a North American hometown.)

The researchers found no evidence of bias based on sexual orientation. Interview rates for gay applicants were similar to those for straight individuals.

"My advice to HR professionals and hiring managers is to avoid searching for information about candidates on online social networks," says Christina Fong, senior research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Even if employers believe that they are looking only for job-relevant information, chances are high that they may see things that they should not—and perhaps do not want to—know."

The study, "An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination via Online Social Networks," is available on the Social Science Research Network.

Poor Communication Causes Low Morale

Poor communication is the greatest source of low workplace morale, according to a recent survey of more than 300 HR managers by Accountemps, a staffing service.

One-third of the respondents said poor communication is to blame for morale problems, while 18 percent said micromanagement was the biggest contributor. Other causes cited include failure to recognize employee achievements (15 percent), fear of job loss (10 percent) and excessive workloads for extended periods (9 percent).

"Fortunately, morale problems can often be addressed relatively easily," says Max Messmer, chairman of Accountemps and author of Human Resources Kit for Dummies, 3rd ed. (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2013). "Improving workplace communication is one of the most effective—and least costly—ways to combat the problem of a disengaged workforce."

In fact, 38 percent of the HR managers said improving communication is the best way to remedy low morale, while 15 percent listed recognition programs and monetary rewards for exceptional performance; another 13 percent reported unexpected rewards such as gift certificates or sporting events tickets, and 11 percent said team-building events.

What has the most negative impact on employee morale?

Lack of open, honest communication 33%

Micromanaging employees 18%

Failure to recognize employee

achievements 15%

Fear of job loss 10%

Excessive workloads for

extended periods 9%

None of these 14%

Don’t know 2%

Responses don’t total 100 percent due to rounding.

Source: Accountemps survey, 2013.

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