Why it matters: According to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University, employers may be using their social media research of potential applicants to discriminate. Using fake profiles on popular social networking sites, the researchers found that Muslim applicants were less likely to be called back for an interview than applicants with a profile suggesting they were Christian. The findings demonstrate the dangers for employers of consulting sources like Facebook and the potential for relying upon illegal information like religion when making a hiring decision. Even seemingly innocuous information – a quote from a specific religious text, for example – could lead employers to consider off-limit topics like religion and open themselves to liability.

Detailed Discussion

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon attempted to test employer responses to differences in applicant’s religion (Christian or Muslim) and sexuality (gay or straight) by creating fake resumes and Facebook profiles.

The study found that in regard to the 10 to 33 percent of employers that conducted research on applicants using social networks like Facebook, applicants with public Facebook profiles indicating that the applicant was Muslim were less likely to be called back for an interview than those with profiles suggesting the applicant was Christian. Overall, the Muslim applicants received 14 percent fewer callbacks. Given the low number of total callbacks, however, the researchers said the difference was not statistically significant.

The study found more dramatic differences in conservative parts of the country (based on 2012 election data) with callbacks of 2 percent for Muslims versus 17 percent for Christian applicants. The 10 states that identified most strongly as conservative were Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. “We [found] more evidence of bias among subjects more likely to self-report more political conservative party affiliation,” the study authors wrote.

Disclosures about sexuality had no impact on early interest from employers, the study found.

“An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination via Online Social Networks” involved more than 4,000 fake resumes that the researchers sent to private companies nationwide with more than 15 employees with a job opening listed online. Jobs ranged from technical to managerial positions requiring years of experience or a graduate degree.

To ensure that an Internet search would yield the correct (fake) candidate, the researchers used one of four unique male or female names. The four resulting Facebook profiles implied the individual was Christian, Muslim, gay, or straight. To suggest a particular religion or sexual orientation, the researchers listed different activities and interests. Falsified LinkedIn profiles were also created as well as additional fake profiles for friends and colleagues.

To read the study, click here.