The Hidden Face of Discrimination for Internet Applicants.
By Lila Kelly
Friday, 24th February 2012
As advances in technology continue, organizations are using a variety of electronic recruitment tools; electronic job boards, online social networks, as well as several different versions of applicant tracking systems are widely used across the country.

Employers striving for inclusive recruitment practices continue to struggle with eliminating discrimination in their Internet recruiting practices. In 2006 there was heightened awareness around discrimination issues and Internet applicants when the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) implemented a new Internet Applicant Rule (41 CFR Part 60-1).

This rule mandated employers doing business with the Federal government to identify applicants, determine their race and sex, and perform an adverse impact analysis to evaluate whether the employer's recruitment and hiring practices have a disproportionately negative impact upon ethnic minorities and women.

Today it is common to hear a comment like, "My company only takes applications over the Internet." It makes sense that organizations are turning to online systems to help collect, screen, and sort the bulk of applications they receive. However, employers need to be aware that this recruiting practice can have elements of bias and hidden discrimination.

For example, a recruiter was blind to the barriers that only accepting applications online might create. When asked why they limited applicants to only this method of application, the recruiter commented, "We see this as the first employment test that all applicants have to pass in our hiring process." This may sound reasonable, but wait a minute…. employment test? When asked for what job skills this was testing, the recruiter responded, "Basic computer skills." The next question was, "Does your company have many jobs that do not require basis computer skills?" This led the recruiter to admit that her company had many jobs that did not require the use of a computer. 

Requiring all candidates to apply over the Internet, without providing exceptions, may cause some qualified applicants to be screened out. It also may create general accessibility issues for applicants under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if reasonable accommodations are not made for applicants.

For example, someone who is sight-impaired may not be able to complete an online application, and an employer, upon request from an applicant, should provide a reasonable alternative.

Perspectives from Diverse Internet Applicants

Contrary to a common assumption, not everyone owns or has easy access to a computer and the Internet. Although libraries and other facilities have computers available, access is often dependant on many factors. To gain a better perspective of this, put yourself in the shoes of many applicants who do not have Internet access at home.

After a full day at work, take the city bus to a library, wait in line for a computer, and complete an online application process in the time allowed. If you do not have small children, borrow a couple and bring them along. Perhaps the computer screen will freeze or time out on you, the library will be closed that day, you will forget your USB flash drive with your resume to attach to your application, it will be raining or below zero outside, or….. you get the picture. This type situation is a reality for many of today's workers and demonstrates how Internet accessibility is neither equal nor easy for everyone.

Online applications can be cumbersome, confusing, and not user-friendly. Alex, an employment specialist who works for a nonprofit where he places recent immigrants in a variety of jobs, shared these client examples regarding online personality tests:

Regarding an online personality testing tool at a large corporation, as portrayed by a Togolese immigrant: ".... then it asked me if I have done my share of causing trouble. I am wondering, 'What is a share of trouble?' All I want to do is stock shelves and practice the customer service I have learned in class."

Regarding an [international coffee shop chain's] online personality test attached to the application as relayed by an Ethiopian job seeker: "One of the questions asks if I agree that life is more about having fun than hard work. In my country you must work to survive and provide, but I came to America so if I can work enough, maybe one day I can have fun, is this the right answer?"

Alex continued, "Most of these online applications are so complex and fragile that they will screen out qualified people. They fail and reset if you use standard Internet Explorer commands; they time out if you are taking time assembling your life's work; and they ask questions that can take up to three hours to get through. About the only thing [an employer is] sure of at the end of these applications is that you either have a computer expert or a teenager applying for the job. How many qualified custodians, food service workers, and home healthcare personnel do these online applications screen out?"

Jane, a training manager, gave up on an unwieldy online application process, but was still successfully captured by the organization's applicant tracking system. She said,

"I started an online application process and attached my resume. After several pages that contained only one or two questions each, it required me to fill in sections of my background. I wondered why, since they already have my resume, but figured no big deal. But when I tried to copy and paste from my resume, it wouldn't let me do that. I had to type everything word-for-word again. Having spent significant time already on the application, and not knowing how many more pages like this were yet to come, I had to stop. I just figured that it was not meant to be. A couple weeks later I got a call from the company for a phone screen. I was glad that they got my resume and called me. However, the call was a surprise since I didn't complete the online process, and I was not prepared for the phone interview."

This Internet recruiting practice was successful because it requested the applicant's resume up front, and a recruiter followed up on it. Otherwise, this un-user friendly application process would have caused this organization to miss the opportunity to consider a qualified applicant.

Employee Referrals and Internet Applicants

Surveys still show that a top source for new hires (not applications received) is in-person networking, i.e., referrals. The Internet can bring in hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for some jobs. Then these applications need to be screened, which can be a burdensome task for recruiters, if not overwhelming. When a hiring manager recognizes an applicant's name because someone they know referred that person, it can make the hiring process easier for the recruiter, hiring manager, and the applicant.

Employee referrals can be a source of hidden discrimination depending on the diversity of your current workforce. Employees refer individuals from their networks, who in most cases look like those employees. This recruiting method can leave out people who are outside of the current demographics of your workforce.

While referred qualified applicants may be quickly passed through the hiring process, qualified applicants who are not referred, possibly a high percentage of the diverse applicants in your applicant data base, may be slowed down or screened out due to hidden bias and discrimination in the recruiting and hiring process.

Alex, the employment specialist working with immigrants, changed his practice after realizing the necessity of a personal contact. He stated, "I don't bother sending blind applications anymore. After sending over 100 unsolicited online applications for my clients and receiving zero calls, I learned the only way for an immigrant or refugee to get an entry level job is to have a friend already working there or for me to personally advocate for him or her."

This hidden discrimination practice was brought to light on a national basis in a resume study that was conducted in 2003. Two professors from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sent 5,000 résumés in response to want ads in the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe. All résumés had the same qualifications, but half of the résumés had black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal), and half had white-sounding names (Emily and Brendan). Résumés with white-sounding names elicited 50% more responses—a call, letter, or email—than résumés with black-sounding names.

Application Deadline

Some organizations do not consider applicants who do not complete the application by the deadline date. There can be many reasons for an applicant not to complete an online application, including internal problems with the system. One applicant completed an application before the deadline, but the system would not let her submit it.

After making sure that all information on the application was complete, she emailed the contact person. After a few emails back and forth and a couple days later, she was informed that she could no longer apply since it was beyond the deadline date. This could have been an applicant that the organization would have spent lots of money and time trying to recruit by going to expensive job fairs, college recruiting trips, or by running expensive ads.

This organization's system blocked her from trying to come to them on her own effort. Someone only had to step out a little bit further to meet this applicant on their virtual doorstep. The application form can be completed later, as it is just a technicality.

Suggestions for Internet Recruiting

When utilized in an organized and structured format, the Internet can serve as an effective tool for reaching a diverse pool of qualified applicants.

Here are some things to consider to make an online application process applicant-friendly and reduce bias or discrimination:

  • Provide information with your online application about how many sections or pages the application contains and if the applicant can sign off and return to the application at a later time.
  • Have help readily available for applicants, in person or through the online application system. For online systems, include instructions with the application on how to get "live" help. This could be in the form of a phone number, e-mail, or live chat. For in-person situations, have a computer available at your organization for applicants to come in and apply and have someone available to assist them.
  • Capture the applicant's resume first, so if the applicant does not complete the whole application, you can still contact qualified applicants to complete the application process and perhaps with an invitation to come in for an interview.
  • Offer an alternative way to apply in addition to the online application, such as a paper application, if this fits with your organization's record-keeping system. If not, invite the applicant in and assist him/her in your online process. Remember, there are many jobs that do not require a person to own a computer nor have computer skills.
  • Don't ask for the applicant's Social Security number (SSN) until you are going to do a background check. With all the warnings about identify theft, requiring the SSN right up front may stop a qualified applicant from applying.
  • Set up an automatic step to notify the applicant when his or her application has been received. If the applicant does not have an email address (not an essential function for many jobs), the phone is an alternative way to communicate necessary information.
  • Many applicant tracking systems have the option for applicants to disclose their protected-class status for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Affirmative Action (AA) purposes. One strategy for targeted recruitment for AA/EEO goals is to search for and select applications that fit under-represented groups in your organization. E-mail those applicants your current job openings and ask if either they or someone else they know might be interested. By strategically focusing on diverse applicants, chances are higher that their networks will bring in more diverse applicants than the networks of the majority group in your applicant database.
  • Review all qualified applicants with hiring managers on a regular basis. Keep this list updated, print a hard copy to show managers, and note where each applicant is in the process. This will help prevent any applicants from slipping through the cracks.
  • Keep track of the sources that current employees used to land their jobs with your organization. One caution though—if they say the Internet, ask them what made them go to your organization's website to apply. For example, was it an electronic job board, a social network, or a current employee who is an acquaintance of theirs?
This will give you a more accurate answer and allow you to focus on the recruiting methods that have been successful and to assess why other methods are not.

Being more understanding and respectful of applicants' experiences and following some of these suggestions will help avoid unintentional discrimination and provide equal access to jobs for everyone. Uncovering the hidden face of discrimination for Internet applicants will give your organization the opportunity to consider all qualified applicants and to make the best possible selection for each job.

Copyright 2011 Lila Kelly Associates, Diversity and Hiring Strategies – Since 1992. Not to be reprinted without written permission from the author. This article includes excerpts from books by Lila Kelly on Diversity & Inclusion and Diversity Recruiting at http://stores.lulu.com/diversitybooks, and can be found at www.lilakelly.com.

Reprinted with permission from the author.
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