Many job seekers nowadays reveal personal information online that is not easily detectable in personal interviews, and which may even be illegal for employers to request or use in the hiring process. For instance, in most of the United States, if an employer were to ask a job applicant about religious affiliation, she may be sued for discrimination under Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Seeking this information online, however, reduces employers’ search costs in a variety of ways, including lowering the risk of detection. Thus, the rise of blogging, social networking sites, and other Web 2.0 or social media services has created a new arena for labor market matching, but also for labor market discrimination.
Anecdotes and self-report surveys suggest that U.S. firms have, in fact, started using various online services to research job candidates. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has cautioned of the risks associated with searching online for protected characteristics, and in doing so it may have dissuaded some organizations from using social media in the hiring process. Some States have even drafted bills limiting employers’ ability to access candidates’ online information. Hence, it is unclear how widespread this practice is across employers, and how frequent it is within each organization. Self-report industry surveys of employers provide widely differing data – with more recent surveys suggesting that only a minority of employers actually search job candidates online.
We present results from two complementary randomized experiments (a field experiment and an online experiment) on the impact of online information on U.S. firms’ hiring behavior. We manipulate candidates’ personal information that is protected under either federal laws or some state laws, and may be risky for employers to enquire about during interviews, but which may be inferred from applicants’ online social media profiles. In the field experiment, we test responses of over 4,000 U.S. employers to a Muslim candidate relative to a Christian candidate, and to a gay candidate relative to a straight candidate. We supplement the field experiment with a randomized, survey-based online experiment with over 1,000 subjects (including subjects with previous human resources experience) testing the effects of the manipulated online information on hypothetical hiring decisions and perceptions of employability.
The results of the field experiment suggest that a minority of U.S. firms likely searched online for the candidates’ information. Hence, the overall effect of the experimental manipulations on interview invitations is small. However, in the field experiment, we find significant discrimination against the Muslim candidate compared to the Christian candidate among employers in more politically conservative states and counties. These results are robust to controlling for firm characteristics, state fixed effects, and a host of county-level variables. We find no evidence of discrimination against the gay candidate relative to the straight candidate. Results from the online experiment are consistent with those from the field experiment: we find more evidence of bias among subjects who self-reported more conservative political party affiliation. The online experiment’s results are also robust to controlling for demographic variables. Results from both experiments should be interpreted carefully. Because conservative states and counties in our field experiment, and conservative party affiliation in our online experiment, are not randomly assigned, the result that discrimination is greater in more conservative areas and among more conservative online subjects should be interpreted as correlational, not causal.
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