In 1874, Father Patrick Francis Healy became the first African-American president of Georgetown University, and thus the first African-American president of a predominantly white college. Racism didn’t impede his rise for a simple reason: Most people thought he was white. No one – neither journalists nor the board of trustees, neither Georgetown professors nor students – had a simple way to discover his true background.
Today, the Internet makes it impossible to achieve that level of privacy. Never has it been so easy to conduct legitimate background checks or verify credentials; and never has it been so easy to surreptitiously research prospective employees’ religion, race or personal views. Employment discrimination is, of course, illegal. However, we know that discrimination occurs, and online searches can covertly facilitate it.
Alessandro Acquisti and Christina M. Fong of Carnegie Mellon University recently conducted a large-scale field experiment about social media use in hiring. First they created Facebook profiles for fictional job candidates, striving to make them identical, except for indications of religious affiliation (listed as Christian or Muslim) or sexuality (gay versus straight). Next, they submitted applications for these fictional job candidates to more than 4,000 employers. These did not indicate religious affiliation or sexuality. The only way to determine the candidates’ religious preference or sexual orientation was to search for and examine their Facebook profiles.
About 33 percent of the companies in the sample seem to have examined the candidates’ social media profiles. The researchers found no statistically significant discrimination against gay candidates. They did, however, find that employers in Republican areas of the United States (based on election results) exhibited significant bias when extending interview invitations – against Muslim applicants, and in favor of Christian applicants. In the 10 states with the highest percentage of votes for the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, only about two percent of the Muslim applicants were invited for interviews, compared with about 17% of the Christian applicants.