March 17 2021 - Cybervetting involves collecting information from social media and other online sources to assess an applicant's suitability for a job. A new study highlights the ways this method can introduce bias into the recruitment process.
Researchers held in-depth interviews with 61 HR professionals involved in recruitment across a range of industries. The interviewees included in-house HR staff, executive recruitment consultants and professionals at employment agencies.
According to Steve McDonald, co-author of the paper and professor of sociology at North Carolina State University:
"The study drives home that cybervetting 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."
Another co-author, Amanda Damarin,an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University said:
"One of the things that cropped up repeatedly was that cybervetting not only judges people's behavior, but how that behavior is presented. 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 feed.
"There's a big disconnect here. One 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."
Steve McDonald added:
"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."
As an example, interviewees cited looking for posts about hiking or family photos of Christmas. But the researchers pointed out that most people who hike are white, and most people who post Christmas photos are Christians. Participants in the study also showed preferences for online profiles that featured "active" or "energetic" lifestyles. These preferences could lead to discrimination against older or disabled job seekers.
There was evident lack of clarity about what job applicants could do to address concerns over bias in cybervetting. The researchers highlighted conflict between the observation by many interviewees that having an online photo created the opportunity for bias within the recruitment process, while "other study participants noted that not having a "professional" profile picture was in itself a red flag."
Steve McDonald continued:
"Some workers have a social media profile that sends the right signals and can take advantage of cybervetting,. But 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."
"Some of the people we interviewed were very aware that cybervetting could lead to increased bias; some even avoided cybervetting for that reason," Amanda Damarin added. "But others were enthusiastic about its use."
The researchers argued that clear guidelines or best practices are needed for using cybervetting, if it is to be used at all. Steve McDonald concluded:
"The second takeaway 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."
The paper entitled "The hunt for red flags: cybervetting as morally performative practice," appears in the journal Socio-Economic Review and was also co-authored by Hannah McQueen, Ph.D. student at NC State and Scott Grether, assistant professor of sociology at Longwood University (a former Ph.D. student at NC State.)