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An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination Via Online Social Networks

Alessandro Acquisti

Carnegie Mellon University - Heinz College

Christina M. Fong

Carnegie Mellon University - Department of Social and Decision Sciences

November 21, 2013

Surveys of U.S. employers suggest that numerous firms seek information about job applicants online. However, little is known about how this information gathering influences employers’ hiring behavior. 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 and not statistically significant. However, in the field experiment, we find evidence of discrimination linked to political party affiliation. Specifically, following the Gallup Organization’s segmentation of U.S. states by political ideology, we use results from the 2012 presidential election and find evidence of discrimination against the Muslim candidate compared to the Christian candidate among employers in more Romney-leaning 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 more likely to self-report more political conservative party affiliation. The online experiment’s results are also robust to controlling for demographic variables. Results from both experiments should be interpreted carefully. Because politically conservative states and counties in our field experiment, and more conservative party affiliation in our online experiment, are not randomly assigned, the result that discrimination is greater in more politically conservative areas and among more politically conservative online subjects should be interpreted as correlational, not causal.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 62

Keywords: Privacy, Economics, Social Networking Sites, Labor Discrimination

JEL Classification: J7

working papers series

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Date posted: April 2, 2012 ; Last revised: November 22, 2013

Suggested Citation

Acquisti, Alessandro and Fong, Christina M., An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination Via Online Social Networks (November 21, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2031979 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2031979

Contact Information

Alessandro Acquisti (Contact Author)
Carnegie Mellon University - Heinz College ( email )
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States
412-268-9853 (Phone)
412-268-5339 (Fax)
Christina M. Fong
Carnegie Mellon University - Department of Social and Decision Sciences ( email )
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States
412-268-8168 (Phone)
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