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Terrifying on so many levels: Applicants’ pictures on social media profiles can be a key factor in hiring decisions

December 14th, 2012  |  Joy Waltemath

This news release came out yesterday:

Despite research indicating that candidates’ pictures can bias staffing decisions, the use of social networking websites suggests organizations are likely viewing pictures in these situations. A recent study of nearly 100 working professionals sought to determine if having a picture on a LinkedIn profile made an applicant preferable to one who did not have a picture. LinkedIn was chosen because it is a networking site particularly relevant to the workplace.

Results found that candidates pictured on their profiles were considered more favorable than candidates without a picture. The study also found that applicants with attractive pictures were not only seen as preferable but as stronger and better job applicants. Even those whose pictures were considered unattractive were seen as more favorable than those without a picture. One reason pictures are preferred by managers is that many feel they can perceive positive or negative qualities by looking at the photo (emphasis added).

What does this mean for employment lawyers (aside from the fact that our services will never be unnecessary)? It suggests, at least, that despite our management counsel, our training imperatives for managers and supervisors, our cautionary tales about the dangers of social media recruiting and such, we haven’t made much progress in overcoming what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as “the Warren Harding error.” In his 2005 book Blink, Gladwell notes that facts about people’s appearance—their size or shape or color or sex—can trigger a set of powerful associations. He calls this the “Warren Harding error” (after the man who was, “most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history,”) because:

Many people who looked at Warren Harding saw how extraordinarily handsome and distinguished-looking he was and jumped to the immediate – and entirely unwarranted – conclusion that he was a man of courage and intelligence and integrity. They didn’t dig below the surface. The way he looked carried so many powerful connotations that it stopped the normal process of thinking dead in its tracks.

Gladwell goes on to explain that we have both conscious and unconscious attitudes; we do not deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes and, in fact, we are likely not even aware of them. More disturbing, however, is the fact that “our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values.” As an illustration, he points to the evidence that height, in men, itself triggers a set of very positive unconscious associations, so that at the time Blink was published, 14.5 percent of U.S. men were six feet tall or taller, but among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 58 percent were of that height. It is unlikely that this is deliberate prejudice; aside from Randy Newman’s 1977 song “Short People,” one rarely hears from hiring managers that “we can’t possibly hire him for this leadership role; he’s too short.

Perhaps employment lawyers can take solace in the fact the study sample referenced in the news release is small – less than 100 “working professionals.” Even so, the idea that we can avoid employment discrimination through education and training or even by excluding photographs from consideration in hiring decisions seems quaintly optimistic (e.g., the study noted that candidates with pictures on their profiles were considered more favorable than candidates without a picture).  We ought, it seems, to be able to better encourage employment selection processes based on applicants’ competence, ability, and skill than fall back on the advice given by the press release: “Job seekers posting their pictures on profile pages would be well advised to use a high quality image of themselves rather than a snapshot.”

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