Carnegie Mellon Proves That EEOC Reservations Concerning Social Media Background Checks Are Well-Founded

By Michael Klazema on 12/4/2013

Could hiring managers be banned entirely from looking at the social media profiles of their potential employees? It’s certainly possible after a November Carnegie Mellon University study found empirical evidence that social media background checks really do lead to more discrimination in the employee screening process.

The study, which was reported nationwide by the Wall Street Journal, claimed that “between 10 percent and one third” of employers throughout the United States use social media networks like LinkedIn and Facebook early in the hiring process to determine whether applicants are an appropriate fit with their company culture. It also found that American companies using social media networks in the employee screening process were less likely to hire Muslims than they were to hire Christians, with interview callback rates of 2 percent (for Muslims) versus 17 percent (for Christians).

The EEOC won’t like those statistics, which more or less confirm what the commission has been saying about social media background checks all along. While social media can be a great way for employers to sniff out unprofessional applicants, it also unintentionally gives them access to a slew of information that can compromise their ability to fairly assess those applicants.

In other words, by giving hiring managers access to their applicants’ personal information—including, but not limited to religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, and political preference—social media background checks are jeopardizing the equal employment opportunity mantras that the EEOC has spent years defending.

So could the Carnegie Mellon study be the final straw for the EEOC as far as social media background checks are concerned? Could it be the impetus that causes the equal employment governing board to institute new guidelines against employers using Facebook to learn more about their applicants? That’s hard to say. For one thing, it would be incredibly difficult for the EEOC to completely monitor and control the way employers use a free (and largely, open) internet resource to run their business.

In addition, since most employers use Facebook to learn about their applicants’ behavior outside of the workplace—from photos to statuses and comments—and find out sensitive, discriminatory information almost incidentally along the way, the EEOC might have trouble even proving discrimination. The Carnegie Mellon study noted a correlation between social media background checks and discrimination, but it is impossible to know for certain whether or not that discrimination would have been there without social media.

Employers hoping to avoid any discrimination in the employee screening process have typically adhered mostly to more traditional background check methods, such as the traditional state and nationwide criminal checks available from Tests are also available to help employers verify their applicants’ resume contents, including past employment and education.

However, Facebook and other social media platforms are one of the best ways employers can learn about red flag behavior, such as binge drinking and racists, sexist, or otherwise offensive comments, before bringing an applicant into the fold of their business. Is there a way that the EEOC could let those parts of a social media background check exist while eliminating the chance of overturning discriminatory information?


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