Protecting Hiring Managers from Themselves: Organizational Dynamics and Discriminatory Online Candidate Screening

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW2.3.03 (Tower Two)
Steve McDonald, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
Amanda K. Damarin, Georgia Perimeter College, Atlanta, GA
Scott Grether, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

Employer access to online information about potential job candidates – via social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn), resume posting boards (e.g., Monster, CareerBuilder), and Google searches – has generated concerns about how this information might be used to discriminate against disadvantaged groups in the labor market. Relatively little is known about: 1) how organizational agents negotiate the use online information as part of the hiring process and 2) how they attempt to deal with the discriminatory potential associated with perusing social media profiles that may include job applicants’ race, age, sexual orientation, disability status, and other information that could be used to discriminate against workers. A focus on these organizational practices is important because it highlights the relational processes that can contribute to or mitigate social inequality in employment outcomes, helping to open the “black box” of hiring discrimination.

The present study investigates these issues through qualitative interviews with human resource (HR) professionals. HR professionals are important to study because they play a critical in the hiring process – helping to connect workers looking for employment with hiring managers seeking to fill jobs. The interviews reveal that the use of online information in screening candidates is strongly influenced by relationship dynamics between HR professionals and the hiring managers that they serve.


The data presented here come from 31 qualitative interviews with human resource professionals from April to October 2014 in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Respondents were recruited through attendance of HR professional meetings, events, and functions, supplemented with respondent suggested referrals. The semi-structured interviews averaged 1 hour and 8 minutes. We followed a grounded theory approach to the collection and analysis of these data. The final sample effectively covers HR professionals in a variety of organizational forms, including no less than 4 individuals in each of the following categories: non-profit organizations, large private corporations, small/medium private corporations, private staffing agencies, and colleges/universities. The sample also represents a broad range of industries, including (but not limited to) real estate, law, finance, health care, engineering, manufacturing, and private services.


Key Findings

The HR professionals that we talked to varied in the extent to which they used online information to screen job applicants. However, most respondents recognized the potential for discrimination associated with this practice, whether they engaged in it or not. HR professionals are sensitized to these concerns at least in part because they are required to participate in various trainings on diversity for their professional certification. The respondents also felt that they could overcome bias by focusing on skills and ignoring irrelevant information about job candidates.

HR Professionals described the hiring managers they worked with as uninterested in avoiding bias in their assessments of candidates, but also reported avoiding direct consultation with hiring managers about these concerns. A substantial proportion of the interviewees assumed that, when making hiring decisions, managers relied solely on applicant information provided by HR and did not supplement that information with online searches for candidates. When pressed, many HR professionals admitted that they had only a vague sense of how hiring managers used online information to make hiring decisions. Despite this uncertainty, the respondents offered numerous stories in which they heard about a hiring manager using a questionable online image or article to disqualify a candidate.

Almost none of the HR professionals said that they provided trainings for hiring managers on how to use online sources of information to screen candidates, in contrast to the many trainings that are used to emphasize best practices for asking questions during interviews or for interviewing references. Rather, the counseling of hiring managers on these issues was almost entirely ad hoc – HR professionals chose to address these problems only when they were informed of questionable practices. The only proactive strategy for reducing this form of potential bias was indirect. Many of the HR professionals talked about how they had to “protect hiring managers from themselves” by doing all of the online screening of candidates so that managers would be less likely to do this work on their own.

Avoiding direct confrontation with hiring managers is a way for HR professionals to deal with their marginalized status within their organizations. The HR profession is "wide but not deep" in that all but the smallest organizations have at least one person doing human resources, but the HR departments are relatively small in size even for very large companies. HR professionals explained that the work that they do is devalued in most organizations; employees often view dealing with HR as an annoyance and as activity that makes it more difficult for work to get done. HR departments are also viewed as “cost centers” in organizations in that they require the spending rather than making company profits. Consequently, HR departments are key targets for downsizing and outsourcing. HR departments are also disproportionately populated with women and race/ethnic minorities. In sum, the precarity of the profession leaves HR workers at a power deficit in organizations, which affects their dealings with hiring managers.


The interviews reveal how organizational practices are shaped by relational dynamics between organizational actors. The discriminatory consequences of online screening are apparent to HR professionals and they perceive hiring managers as having relatively little interest in limiting biased evaluations of job candidates based on online information. And yet, HR professional often avoid engaging hiring managers about these concerns, largely because of the precarity of the roles that they fill in organizations. They tend to address these concerns about discriminatory use of online information indirectly or only after problems arise, preferring to avoid confrontation with hiring managers. As a result, hiring managers face few limits or guidelines in choosing which online materials to pursue, which to avoid, and how to use the resulting information in candidate screening.