‘Cyber vetting’ job candidates can cause moral judgment, bias during hiring process

RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s easier than ever to get a true idea of what a job candidate is really like thanks to the ability to “cyber vet” an individual through their online behavior. A recent study out of North Carolina State University, however, reveals that this process can cause bias when hiring employees. Researchers say the cyber hiring process often includes the research of potential employee’s social media accounts and any information online which can cause a potentially damaging judgment of moral behavior.

“The study drives home that cyber vetting is ultimately assessing each job candidate’s moral character. It is equally clear that many of the things hiring professionals are looking at make it more likely for bias to play a role in hiring,” says Steve McDonald, corresponding author of the study and a professor of sociology, in a statement

The NC State study focused on 61 human resource professionals which were responsible for hiring employees for many different companies. Researchers reviewed each HR staff member ranging from executives to workers at various staffing agencies.

“One of the things that cropped up repeatedly was that cyber vetting not only judges people’s behavior but how that behavior is presented,” notes co-author Amanda Damarin, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “For example, one participant noted that his organization had no problem with employees drinking alcohol, but did not want to see any photos of alcohol in an employee’s social media feedThere’s a big disconnect here. On the one hand, HR professionals view social media as being an ‘authentic’ version of who people really are; but those same HR professionals are also demanding that people carefully curate how they present themselves on social media.”

Adds McDonald: “It was also clear that people were rarely looking for information related to job tasks – a point some study participants brought up themselves. And the things they did look for reflected their explicit or implicit biases.”

Cyber vetting social media profiles can put job candidates at disadvantage

Many HR members state that they search a potential employee’s social media for family Christmas photos or photos of hiking trips. However, most individuals who post pictures of Christmas are Christian, of course, and most hikers are White. Additionally, profiles that revealed “energetic” individuals were sought after, which caused discrimination against disabled or even elderly people seeking jobs.

There were also no clear guidelines of what the job seekers could do to prevent bias when someone viewed their social media accounts. Some HR participants said that it was a “red flag” for individuals not to have a profile picture that was “professional.” However, other HR participants said bias could be created by simply adding pictures online in the first place.

“Some workers have a social media profile that sends the right signals and can take advantage of cyber vetting. However, for everyone else, they are not only at a disadvantage, but they don’t even know they are at a disadvantage – much less why they are at a disadvantage. Because they don’t necessarily know what employers are looking for,” says McDonald. 

“Some of the people we interviewed were very aware that cyber vetting could lead to increased bias; some even avoided cyber vetting for that reason. However, others were enthusiastic about its use,” said Damarin. In any manner, researchers say clear guidelines need to be created if cyber vetting is to be used.

“The second takeaway,” McDonald adds, “is that the biases and moral judgments we are hearing about from these HR professionals are almost certainly being incorporated into software programs designed to automate the review of job candidates. These prejudices will simply be baked into the algorithms, making them a long-term problem for both organizations and job seekers.”

This study is published in the journal Socio-Economic Review. 

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