Social media unquestionably facilitates the connection of ideas and the dissemination of information, but the space is still fuzzy when it comes to privacy. While many may be inclined to believe their personal social information is protected online, this isn’t always the case.

A Carnegie Mellon Study recently revealed that between 10 percent and a third of U.S firms search social media sites for information on applicants early in the hiring process. While the use of the information obtained through social media could easily be used as the basis for suit under equal employment opportunity law, the threat does not appear to be much of a deterrent for employers. Of the companies who searched for social media information to make a decision on a candidate, only 7 percent had admitted doing so.

Researchers sent out more than 4000 résumés to private firms of 15 or more across the United States.  Each resume used one of four fabricated male names, unique enough to return a specific Facebook profile.

The corresponding social media profiles were designed to allow employers to quickly ascertain a specific piece of information about the candidate. One suggested a candidate was Muslim, another Christian, and the remaining two identified the candidate as either gay or straight. In most cases the profiles did not indicate an affiliation directly, but rather made reference to a lifestyle that could be construed in a certain way by those reviewing the profile.

In addition to confirming the use of social media in hiring decisions, the study also showed that candidates whose Facebook profiles indicated that they were Muslim were less likely to receive call backs then those who identified as Christian.  

The disparity was even more prominent in areas of the country where the population identified themselves as conservative. There, Christian applicants received callbacks 17 percent of the time, compared to Muslim applicants, who received callbacks 2 percent of the time.  Perhaps surprisingly, sexual orientation did not appear to have any bearing on whether or not applicants made it further in the hiring process.

Researchers said that the results showed that companies need to more tightly regulate the ways that those making hiring decisions collect information on candidates. Even the specter of bias in the hiring process could result in costly and reputation-damaging litigation for employers.


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