Not so Hotmail: What your vintage email address says to potential employers

You hear the same advice about email addresses echoed across job search websites, high school counselors’ offices and employment fair booths across the country.

Keep it professional. Don’t reference your age, your religion or your politics. Especially don’t mention your drug habits. And if you just have to snag that SawxFan4lyfe username that you’ve had since high school, maybe create a secondary account for more professional purposes.

It’s sound advice, but what if it’s focused on the wrong side of the @ symbol? 

Sree Sreenivasan, a strategist with an accomplished digital resume, ignited a fierce debate on LinkedIn in January when he suggested that an email address that ends in @hotmail.com might be grounds for tossing out a job application.

“When you see a resume with a Hotmail address, what do you do?” he wrote. “Treat 'em same as others? Reject 'em right away? Some other response?”

Responses ranged from annoyed (“That would be the same as poking fun at a 15-year-old Toyota that is rust-free and still runs like new. It works, it does its job, and it’s mine. Get over it.”) to outraged (“If my email doesn't get me the job, then I didn't want it to begin with!”) to pointedly bombastic (“While you are on it you should track them, find them and put a bullet in their heads. That would teach them.”). 

The furor demonstrated that not only are people using one of the world’s oldest webmail services, they’re zealous fans of accounts that some have been using for decades. 

But does a Hotmail domain actually matter to job recruiters? What about other long-standing email services, like AOL or Yahoo or Outlook? Recruiters, hiring managers, lawyers and human resources experts we spoke to largely agree that it’s unwise for businesses to discard a job application because of a vintage email domain. 

But it still might be time to consider a switch to something more fresh.

Seeking tech-savvy applicants

Hotmail launched in 1996 as one of the first public webmail services. Originally stylized as HoTMaiL to highlight its web-based existence (HTML provides the building blocks for most web pages) and because mixing cases was inexplicably popular at the time, Hotmail offered everything that ISP-based email did not. Most notably, while its contemporaries were tied to a specific device, users could access Hotmail from any computer all over the world.

Around the same time that Yahoo acquired its main competitor, Four11 RocketMail, Hotmail went to Microsoft and underwent a series of rebranding campaigns: MSN Hotmail, Windows Live Hotmail and, finally, Outlook.com. 

When Microsoft began encouraging Hotmail users to switch to Outlook in 2012, they used language like “upgrade” and referred to Outlook as “modern email.” It made Hotmail, already an ancient brand in Internet years at 16 years old, seem completely archaic. 

That legacy is why some may see Hotmail holdouts in 2018 as people who lack technological knowledge.

“Obviously IT leaders and those in a hiring capacity for IT, they want technologically advanced people,” said Mike Clements, branch manager of Robert Half Technology, part of the world’s largest accounting and finance staffing firm.

An “outdated” email may sometimes play a “very, very small” role in rating a candidate, but it’s a very minimal consideration compared to his or her skill sets and abilities. And he can’t think of a time when someone’s application was tossed aside solely because of an email domain.

“It hasn’t played a factor in whether any candidates were eliminated for consideration,” Clements said.

But he also noted that there is a dearth of candidates for the IT jobs for which he recruits. In industries where there are more applicants than positions available, like journalism, it’s possible that reviewers may come to rely on simple but misguided cues to parse a mountain of resumes.

People have always used various signaling and screening techniques,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. “Ignoring people who use older technology doesn't strike me as a particularly effective way to screen people but if someone is truly overwhelmed with applications, perhaps even noisy and often inaccurate signals like that can reduce the information overload a bit.”

Not a meaningful piece of data

Job candidates submit a lot of information about themselves in an attempt to woo potential employers. Conventional wisdom often leads them to top their resumes with a summary statement and previous employment history, segueing to academics, awards and other miscellanea. 

Chris J. Collins, associate professor of human resource management studies at Cornell University, questions if any of it matters. 

“We often overvalue certain pieces of information that might not tell us much about the candidate's skills or capabilities,” he said, calling out job titles, names of previous employers and length of service as overvalued cues.

Collins favors interviews, selection tests and real-world examples of an applicant’s skills as a better measure of future performance over anything on his or her resume. In his estimation, there is absolutely nothing to be gleaned from an email domain.

“We know from 60 years of research on selection that that’s a bad use of data because the data that you’re using, the email address, tells you nothing about the candidate’s skills, experience or base of knowledge,” he said. “You could have just deselected someone who was actually a great fit for the job based on erroneous assumption.”

At the Seattle Times, news developer Thomas Wilburn is occasionally involved in hiring and assists in picking interns. Because development in newsrooms is still a relatively young profession, Wilburn said, no two newsroom developers have the same experience. That means developers often look for ways to determine the technical aptitude of colleagues and potential employees.

“A lot of us are looking for signals. And a lot of us hope to speak with authority because we spend a lot of time in newsrooms trying to push back against an environment that’s not really technical,” Wilburn said. “And so it comes naturally to try to find ways to classify or sort things mentally.”

A Hotmail address might be considered a novelty among the tech-savvy, but not grounds for tossing away a resume before interviewing a person. The person’s skills, participation in the development community and body of work are much more important than “how you got them to me,” Wilburn said. 

“It’s something I would probably notice eventually. These days having a Hotmail address ... there’s a degree of old-schoolness and I would be intrigued by that. And it’s something I would probably ask someone about,” he said.

But Wilburn said he doesn’t know if a Hotmail address would be considered a “valid signal” outside of the news development world. 

“People who do take it as a signal, I wouldn’t want to work for,” he said.” I think people who see it as a meaningful signal, it says more about them than people who are using them.”

It could have legal ramifications

Many of the people who commented on Sreenivasan’s original post wondered if discriminating against people based on Hotmail usage carried some degree of ageism. 

They might have been on to something.  

Applicants could take two paths to argue that, under federal law, this could be discriminatory, said Stephanie Bornstein, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida. 

If an applicant is treated differently based on age-related stereotypes — for example, “people who use older tech are likely older, and, therefore, less tech-savvy” — that applicant could argue that he or she experienced age discrimination. This is known as disparate treatment.

If a policy or practice is applied to everyone equally but ends up disproportionately affecting a group of people based on age — for example, “an employer won’t consider anyone who uses older tech, which knocks out of consideration a disproportionate number of older people, more of whom use older tech” — the applicant could also argue for age discrimination. This is known as disparate impact.

In either case, the applicant “has to prove a lot to actually win a discrimination lawsuit,” Bornstein said.

For the former, an employer would likely argue that there are “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the treatment the applicant experienced, such as that any person who uses older technology is less tech-savvy, regardless of age, she said. To prove disparate treatment, the applicant would have to show that whatever reason the employer gave for the treatment was a “pretext” or “cover-up” for the real treatment. 

In the second case, the applicant would need to prove, with statistics, that the policy or practice disproportionately affected older people. An employer would likely argue about the statistics and argue, again, that the practice is based on a “reasonable factor other than age,” Bornstein said.

Technology-driven age discrimination lawsuits, Hotmail or not, are becoming commonplace. In December, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Communications Workers of America and Facebook users over 40 after it was revealed that major employers used age targeting to display recruitment ads on Facebook. One of the ads, for employment opportunities at T-Mobile, was only visible to 18- to 35-year-olds. Another, for Facebook, could only be seen by 21- to 55-year-olds. 

“Like many technologies in the modern economy, Facebook has an unfathomable capacity to make workers aware of economic opportunities, such as jobs,” the plaintiff’s lawyers wrote. They continued: “Facebook has turned its powerful ad program into a conduit for age discrimination; and now Plaintiffs have found that national employers have coordinated with Facebook to exclude an enormous portion of the American labor force from receiving job ads, recruitment, and hiring opportunities.”

Be familiar with everything

While someone’s email address may not be important, being familiar with a broad swath of technologies is, especially in some of the newer sectors of journalism.

“If you look at the way the industry is going, depending on the job, and it absolutely depends on the job ... I think there is a valid point to be made that you should probably actually be familiar with how Gmail works,” said Wilburn, the developer in Seattle, specifically citing careers in audience engagement and newsletters. 

We know from analytics data that a majority of newsletter subscribers are Gmail users (dislosure: Poynter recieves funding from Google). Applicants need to understand that, he said, and know how that ecosystem functions to understand audiences better. 

But they also need to understand audiences who might not be at the forefront of technology.

“That’s something we need to be less snobby about in terms of platforms because it limits our ability to think humanely about our audiences,” Wilburn said. “It wouldn’t hurt the rest of us to spend time in Hotmail or Yahoo.”

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