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Senator, We Run (Possibly Discriminatory) Ads

Facebook ads, discrimination, and recruitment
Written by Matan Berkowitz

If you watched Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in the Senate back in April, it’s likely that one moment sticks out in your memory more than others. In the midst of the Senate’s questioning, Senator Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerberg how Facebook “could sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg paused for a second and smirked as he gave his answer: “Senator, we run ads.”

The exchange was memorable because it was obvious. Facebook’s entire business is built on its ability to serve ads to its users. And not just any ads, but highly-targeted ads that help businesses reach the users who are most likely to respond and buy. In fact, that’s how a large chunk of the internet works. Part of the reason for Facebook and Google and Twitter’s successes is their ability to serve ads based on all the information they collect about their users.

We usually focus on issues of data privacy and security with these companies, but it’s become clear that we also need to be concerned with discrimination. A new legal complaint from the ACLU and several others argues that Facebook’s microtargeting tools allow advertisers to break civil rights laws that “prohibit employers, lenders, insurers and landlords from excluding people from advertising on the basis of what are known as ‘protected categories,’ which include gender, race, national origin, religion, age, military status, disability and sexual orientation.”

It’s illegal to advertise job openings for, say, only one gender, but that’s what companies can do on Facebook, thanks to its microtargeting tools. So the question is: what happens when these targeting tools are used to discriminate against groups of people?

Companies Lose When They Discriminate

Putting aside the sticky questions of how responsible Facebook is for this sort of discrimination (which I realize is a big thing to put aside, but there are people more qualified to settle that debate than I am), the answer to the question is actually pretty clear. Companies lose when they discriminate. It’s not just that creating inclusive job postings is the ethical and correct thing to do – although that alone should be enough. At this point, there are tons of studies and statistics to back up the idea that diverse and inclusive companies simply perform better.

Here are just a few:

  • Gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers and ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to do the same, according to McKinsey research
  • When employees think their organization is committed to and supportive of diversity, and they feel included, employees report better business performance in terms of ability to innovate (83% uplift), responsiveness to changing customer needs (31% uplift), and team collaboration (42% uplift), according to a study by Deloitte
  • Decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60% better results, according to a study by Cloverpop

There are lots of reasons not to post job openings that target or exclude specific groups of people. For one, discrimination is wrong. For another, it’s obviously hurtful to the people being discriminated against, and leads to even greater increases in income inequality. But if those aren’t compelling reasons to create inclusive job postings that promote a diverse team, then think about it just in terms of the statistics above. Simply put, it’s bad business.

How Do You Make Inclusive Job Postings?

Okay, so what should companies be doing to avoid either outright discrimination in their job postings, or even inadvertently excluding certain groups of people when posting new openings?

1. Focus Your Descriptions on Actual Requirements
Too often, job descriptions include requirements that have no actual bearing on someone’s ability to do the job. Being a man is not a prerequisite for a job in construction, and being a college graduate shouldn’t be a requirement for a customer service position. By only including the essential requirements of a position, you’ll open your company up to stronger candidates.

2. Review Descriptions for Biased Language
Words like “ninja” and “guru” that appear in many posting can turn women away from a job, whereas “skilled” or “visionary” would deliver the same message but without the gender bias. Ask a group of people how they feel about your job descriptions to catch any unconscious bias in language before you post.

3. Post Your Jobs in a Variety of Places
Where and how you post job openings is a crucial and often overlooked aspect of inclusive recruitment. Even an inclusive ad on Facebook will still only capture the groups of people likely to search for jobs on social media. Think of what locations might find a different pool of candidates, like job fairs, local organizations, and other online sites that cater to different audiences.

It’s How You Use Your Tools

However the ACLU claim against Facebook shakes out, we already know that businesses have a responsibility to hire inclusively and to assemble diverse teams. Get started by taking one of our lessons on Preventing Discrimination in Hiring, or one of our lessons on Behavior Based Interviews that mitigate bias. Start finding ways you can prevent bias or discrimination from creeping into your hiring process, and make sure you are building a diverse and inclusive team.