Oh, Facebook, what were you thinking? The platform that made baby pictures and cute dogs a staple of our daily diet has been accused of serving up an entirely different dish: Age and gender discrimination in employment practices.
Lawsuits have been brought against the social media giant, and others, for using algorithms to create and distribute job postings that intentionally exclude whole classes of people. In essence, they design ads to select the candidates they want and distribute the ads to only those people, with the result that those not fitting the profile never learn of the opening.
(You can see a sampling of these ads at https://bit.ly/2zweWiy)
For example, a Facebook posting seeking candidates to join their recruiting team states: “One reason you’re seeing this ad is that Facebook Careers wants to reach people who may be similar to their customers … Facebook Careers wants to reach people ages 21 to 55 … This is information based on your Facebook profile and where you’ve connected to the internet.”
Another ad posted on Facebook, this time by Amazon to find workers for part-time fulfillment jobs, was sent only to people 18-54 “who live or were recently near Silver Spring, Maryland.”
Okay, that’s just creepy. I’ve been happy to know employers and recruiters may find candidates through LinkedIn, because that’s a forum at least partially controlled by the candidate. But having employers troll through one’s online search history or other data to identify where potential workers recently traveled is the epitome of TMI.
It’s also a broad invitation to discriminate based on even more data points. You could argue that what you’ve posted on Facebook is fair game, but is it fair for a potential boss to already know which health conditions you’ve researched or which online dating sites you’ve visited?
I’m old enough to remember print ads that ran as “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs” — that was still happening in the 1970s, when I was looking for summer work — but I also remember when most of these practices disappeared. So I was quite surprised to find such blatant tools of discrimination had been resurrected. It’s like a bad zombie movie where dead things refuse to stay dead.
Although most would agree these are not great hiring strategies (then or now), they do raise the question: Is it wrong to target a group for employment? Corporate and government initiatives focused on improving workplace diversity or developing the talents of women in traditionally male-oriented fields are examples of targeted marketing that garner mostly positive public support.
But there is a difference in implementation, which I think counts. Since those seeking more diversity in their candidates mostly do this by ensuring their postings are distributed more broadly than usual — say, by posting on sites targeted to their desired audiences as well as on the more general sites — they don’t overtly exclude anyone so much as they make extra effort to add more people to the pool.
The lawsuits and court cases will grind on but we may not know for years whether they represent momentary lapses of judgment, or new plateaus in the ongoing battle over employment discrimination. In any case, such hindsight will come too late for today’s job seekers, who need to move forward now.
I have advice on this issue, which will sound very much like my standard advice for job search: If you want to improve your effectiveness as a candidate, limit (or eliminate, if you dare) digital search processes. The more dependent you are on online systems, the more trapped you will be into trying to please the algorithm rather than the hiring manager. And the more vulnerable you will be to those screening you out for the wrong reasons.
The alternative to online processes is personal contact. Instead of asking “Who’s currently advertising?” you ask “Where would I like to work?” and then connect with those you know, or will soon know, in order to secure a conversation. In that discussion, you ask either, “Can we discuss the potential of me working for you?” or “Can you help me meet managers who might be interested in my skills?”
That’s how hiring has been done for decades, and how it continues to be done now. When the manager knows a candidate personally, the urge to discriminate on the basis of race, gender or age is balanced by an appreciation for the skills and attitude this person is going to contribute.
My parting advice? If you want to use Facebook and other social media to locate and meet the people you’d like to work with, that makes sense. But leave the online search for others. If you focus more on networking than on applying, you’ll land faster and better.
Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.