Ever noticed relevant jobs appearing in your job hunt websites – LinkedIn, Naukri, Indeed, CareerBuilder, Monster, and now even Facebook? The method applied is the same as customers on ecommerce websites are used to when they get recommendations based on past product purchases or browsing history. The method is called micro-targeting, only in this case it does not show the pair of shoes that may look good on you, but the next step you should make in your career. The keyword matching and text parsing ends up landing people their dream jobs; but what if the employer had the power to make the job posting invisible to you based on your demographics?
Facebook has recently come under scrutiny for being party to age discrimination in its job ads. An investigative report done in collaboration between New York Times and ProPublica has made some revelations on age discrimination that has happened on Facebook job postings by targeting advertisements to younger audiences; and the same postings were invisible to the age group which has been filtered out of the target audience. A Verizon ad for a job in a unit focused on financial planning and analysis was set to run on Facebook feeds of users between age of 25 and 36, residents or recent visitors of Washington, and had shown an interest in finance. The hundreds of millions of people on Facebook who do not fall into these filters were oblivious to the existence of this advertisement.
Not just Verizon, but other top employers like Goldman Sachs, Target, Amazon, UPS, State Farm, and Facebook itself have placed recruitment ads “limited to particular age groups,” according to NYT’s and ProPublica’s investigation.
Not just Facebook, but Google and LinkedIn also allow for excluding people basis their age whilst posting job ads. And employers posting jobs do not always intend to do age-targeting. Amazon, in its response to ProPublica and NYT said that they “discovered some recruiting ads had targeting that was inconsistent with their approach of searching for any candidate over the age of 18.” LinkedIn altogether changed its system to prevent such targeting in employment ads, after being contacted by ProPublica.
While Facebook “disagrees” and denies the micro-targeting to be a case of conscious age discrimination, and compares the micro-targeting to the targeting done in employment ads in magazines (like AARP or Teen Vogue with readership of a certain age group) and on TV shows targeted at younger or older people.
The legal implications of this kept aside, this raises some serious questions on the present and future of talent acquisition.
Does the option of micro-targeting feed into an employer’s bias?
The option of targeting advertising gives tremendous power to employers. And if they happen to be biased, this power can be misused so very easily, can it not? An employer, who may not consider women employees an asset in their maternity period, may choose to exclude them from the demographics of people who see the job ad. Businesses have their fair share of concerns with rewarding the vacant chair.
The Valley is already infamous with its employee burnout shenanigans. The average age of employees in tech companies is in and around 30 years, and it is an open secret that the younger generation is preferred over older ones to work in their high pressure, high performance environment. Why wouldn’t, in that case, a biased employer choose to bypass the out-of-favour generations?
Or when United Parcel Service targeted a “part time package delivery” job ad to people between the age of 18 and 24, wasn’t it an extension of their bias towards hiring young people?
Can employers be caught unaware and unintendedly misuse micro-targeting?
Amazon wasn’t alone in being caught off guard when its job advertisement on Facebook was not visible to people above 50. Hubspot, an inbound marketing and sales software company, also ended up “mistakenly” micro-targeting based on age on Facebook for the Social Media Director job. A Hubspot representative told ProPublica and Times that “the use of the targeted age-range selection on the Facebook ad was frankly a mistake on our part given our lack of experience using that platform for job postings and not a feature we will use again.” Does this mean employers can unintentionally end up discriminating because they are unaware of the technicalities of posting jobs online? And if that is the case, shouldn’t they be trained so that this inadvertent mistake does not happen?
Does micro-targeting open avenues of discrimination against minorities?
The Hubspot job never featured on the Facebook feed of Mark Edelstein, a 58-year old, legally blind job-seeker in the field of social media strategy and marketing. It was because he did not fit the age criteria. Does his age or his physical disability negatively affect his employability? It may not affect his ability, but an employer who deliberately is against hiring people with disabilities will take him out of contention by making the job invisible to him in the first place. Facebook has anyway been in a legal tussle over racially discriminating house ads, owing to its “ethnic affinity” feature in ads. If such discriminatory features (surrounding ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.) were included in job ad postings as well, it may open avenues of discrimination. Such would be the nature of discrimination, too, that only an investigative report would ever reveal it.
Will an employer’s assumptions about a certain group of people lead to the latter’s disadvantage?
Humans make assumptions. And if an employer’s assumption is that people between the age of 18 and 24 make the best ‘Package Delivery People’, then it makes sense for the employer to use micro-targeting in its job advertisement. Maybe that was the thought process of the recruiter at UPS when (s)he filtered the job ad to feature in the feed of the preferred age category. Certain demographics are assumed to be fit for certain roles – men for the armed forces, women for the nursing industry – and if an employer’s assumptions are reciprocated in micro-targeted job ads, then it doesn’t bode well to the diversity discourse.
Is there really no distinction between targeted marketing in publications and broadcast media, and digital channels?
The defence of those accused of micro-targeting has been consistent with the theory that it is no different from what has been happening in the advertising industry since the concept emerged – the only difference is the medium. But an intriguing aspect to understand here is that everybody could pick up a Teen Vogue or watch a Nickelodeon whenever they intended to. On the internet, if the ad is not targeted at you, you will never see it. The proposition around the invisibility of the ad is what makes it potentially dangerous – given it is misused.
What do employers need to do?
The steps required for employers are fairly simple. Be aware so that Amazon and Hubspot-like inadvertent mistakes are avoided; and do not discriminate by targeting advertisements to certain preferred demographics. As for job ad hosts like Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn, they need to be careful of the features they introduce in their bouquet of marketing offerings. Any micro targeting should not lead to discrimination on any grounds – there shouldn’t be more Edelsteins, and that is the responsibility of these new-age tech companies.