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Surprising Ways Social Media Recruiting Leads to Discrimination

In the not-so-distant past, if an employer wanted to hire someone they would post an ad in a newspaper or magazines, on internal corkboards or, more recently, on the internet. Now employers are turning to social media to recruit and select candidates.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, allow employers to collect data on prospective applicants, including personal characteristics, such as their age, location, race, gender, likes and dislikes. This data can then be used to target a specific audience for a job ad. Known as “microtargeting”, this technique offers a convenient and efficient method for attracting and selecting potential candidates. Unfortunately, it can also lead to discrimination.

Although human rights legislation pre-dates advancements in technology and doesn’t contemplate or address the new phenomenon of microtargeting, it does prohibit discrimination in the recruitment process more broadly. For example, section 23 (1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code states:

The right under section 5 to equal treatment with respect to employment is infringed where an invitation to apply for employment or an advertisement in connection with employment is published or displayed that directly or indirectly classifies or indicates qualifications by a prohibited ground of discrimination.

While previous methods for posting job openings may have inadvertently excluded an individual or a class of individuals depending on where the ad was posted, social media job ads are calculated, with employers deliberately setting criteria to exclude individuals or classes of individuals making the discrimination more overt. A Quebec law firm is challenging this form of discrimination by filing a class action alleging that Facebook facilitates discriminatory job and housing ads, based on age and gender.

Similar to the issues with microtargeting, employers are using social media to screen potential candidates. It is very easy to search someone’s online profile to assess their suitability for a position. However, doing so may enable employers to find out information that they are prohibited from having under human rights laws, including marital or family status, disability, gender identity or expression, race, and religion, among others. If they then use that information to make a decision about interviewing or hiring someone, consciously or otherwise, they could be discriminating. It is better to make an offer conditional on a satisfactory background check which could then include an online profile check, where appropriate.

There is an adage that says, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. This is very true when recruiting in a digital era. Be careful what tools you use and how.