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Warnings raised of companies using Facebook to create potentially ageist job adverts

3 Aug 2018 By Hayley Kirton

Businesses alleged to have used filtering tools to show vacancies only to certain users

Concerns have been raised that companies could be taking advantage of filtering tools offered by social media sites to show job adverts only to select groups of users, potentially hindering older people from applying.

People Management understands the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has spoken to two UK companies about using tools on Facebook to target specific age groups. However, after further correspondence, EHRC was satisfied it did not have grounds to take enforcement action.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Communications Workers of America and three workers are pursuing a class action lawsuit, alleging companies had used Facebook’s filtering tools to make sure only younger workers could see their adverts. The social media site itself was not named as a defendant. 

People Management looked into the filtering options available on social media websites. Facebook Business adverts, which can be used for lead generation, previously allowed for a high degree of targeting. On 15 May 2018, it was possible to build an advert targeted at women aged 18-35 but excluding those who were parents of toddlers or who had an interest in homosexuality or disability rights. 

However, People Management did not try to publish this advert so it is unknown whether the website, which has a policy of reviewing adverts before they are posted and explicitly prohibits discriminatory content, would have allowed it to run. 

When People Management tried to recreate the advert at a later date, our reporters discovered many of the targeting tools had been removed. The screenshot below, taken on 1 August 2018, shows it was still possible to select filters based on age and gender, and to filter out those with an interest in disability rights. Again, the magazine did not attempt to make this advert live. 

Additionally, these filters are not offered when creating a job advert in the Jobs on Facebook section. 

While no evidence has been seen that LinkedIn is being used to create such adverts, the social media site allows companies to design advertising targeted at particular audiences, including a rough estimate of people’s ages. The screenshot below explaining the targeting options for posts was taken on 2 August 2018.

However, similar to Facebook, LinkedIn’s jobs portal does not allow such precise targeting and the website’s advertising policy prohibits discriminatory posts

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, warned employers’ use of age filters could be “risky” if they didn’t think about their choices carefully.

“Although age is treated differently to the other protected characteristics in that employers can justify direct as well as indirect discrimination, potentially discriminatory recruitment methods need thorough and detailed consideration,” he said. “It’s the employer who has to stand before the judge and explain them, after all.”

Meanwhile, Stefan Martin, employment partner at Hogan Lovells, told People Management that if advertisers managed to slip through the websites’ discrimination spotting safeguards, they could find themselves in legal hot water.

“It’s a bit like sending an ad into the paper which gets published – and there’s been plenty of examples of this in the past which are blatantly discriminatory – and saying, ‘I thought if there was a problem with it, the paper would reject it’. I don’t think that would really fly,” Martin  said.

There are legitimate reasons for applying age filters to advertising more generally, such as preventing children from viewing promotions for gambling or alcohol.  

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We require all advertisers who choose to exclude some users from seeing their ads on Facebook to confirm their compliance with our anti-discrimination policies and the law. 

“Our safeguards, which includes human reviewers and machine learning systems, have successfully flagged millions of ads which violate our anti-discrimination policies and we are continuously working to further increase their effectiveness.”

And a LinkedIn spokesperson confirmed its targeting tools were not accessible on jobs postings. “If a job advert is flagged as discriminatory we will immediately take it down,” the spokesperson added. “Adverts for products and services are able to use targeting tools for location or age to ensure that their campaigns are seen by the relevant audiences. For example, a financial services firm may want to reach retirees for retirement products, or a car company might target adverts for particular models at specific age groups.”

Meanwhile, it has been reported the companies involved in the US case have called the claims vague and subjective in a court filing. 

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