Dr. Ifeoma Ajunwa, of Cornell and Harvard Universities, and Dr. Daniel Greene, University of Maryland College of Information Studies (UMD iSchool), examine how online job applications have changed the hiring landscape. They explore the benefits and challenges of Automated Hiring Platforms (AHPs) for both employers and employees, and how these new third-party technologies change what information is available and how hiring decisions are made. The laws and social relationships governing workplace platforms differ greatly from those governing social media platforms, and so Dr. Greene and Dr. Ajunwa use their research as a guide for labor scholars interested in studying platforms at work, suggesting further avenues of sociological research into platforms for automated scheduling and customer relationship management.
The sociology of work has long-linked analyses of macro-structural changes in labor markets, institutional norms, and corporate organization with workers’ experience of the labor process, their investment in it, and their outcomes from it (Kalleberg, 1989). This has only become more of a challenge in the information economy, where work is increasingly organized by technological platforms whose logic is opaque to employees (Aneesh, 2009; Schor & Attwood-Charles, 2017). The reach of these work platforms exceeds the boundaries of individual organizations, linking contractors across continents or tracking employee data across other social spaces (Winter, Berente, Howison, & Butler, 2014). This restructuring of management through data relations begins even before the employee’s first day of work.
Applying to work at a Target department store, for example, requires applicants to spend hours on an Automated Hiring Platform (AHP) submitting their work history, personally identifiable information, and scheduling availability; agreeing to background checks; and participating in lengthy personality and skills assessments, all quickly analyzed by the platform and processed for the hirer. The interface and analytics of the AHP is structured on Target’s terms. Although the system is not designed by Target but by the data broker Equifax, best known as a consumer credit reporting agency (Marron, 2007), the software will process and sort applicants pursuant to the client’s criteria. There is a preset menu of options for applicants to choose from at each point, adorned with the company’s logo and colors. Even the rare open text field found on the work history page limits applicants to just 32 characters of description for each past job. We term the sociotechnical phenomenon presented by this platform structure, platform authoritarianism (Ajunwa, 2018): the platform restricts the actions available to workers on one side while offering new affordances to employers on the other. Employers gain penetrating new insights into current or potential employees, but the latter have no room to negotiate. Rather, job applicants must engage with the platform as dictated or lose the opportunity to work.
We put forth a research agenda for the study of work platforms such as these, using the conceptual and empirical tools of the sociology of work to open a new path in the platform studies conversation that is presently dominated by media and communication studies. As an example of our proposed approach, we explore the adoption of AHPs in the 1990s and early 2000s as a case study.