“To empower people with the knowledge and inspiration needed to grow and strengthen their most important relationships for a lifetime of happiness” (eHarmony Support Home Page, 2013). This is the mission statement of eHarmony, a market-leading online matchmaking service. Whereas other online matchmaking services attract users looking for short-term relationships, such as one-night stands, eHarmony has remained an industry leader in the long-term relationship segment of the market since their founding in 2000. This is no coincidence, as both their business strategy and product offerings align with, and promote this strategy. Although the company has been in existence for just over a decade, their managers have had to deal with significant changes in their external environment, specifically the marriage market, and have had to make many important decisions regarding the long-term sustainability of the company. According to a strategic assessment of eHarmony performed by Elite Consulting, given eHarmony’s business strategy, “[e]ssentially what [they are] marketing is marriage, one of the most central social institutions throughout the world” (Elite Consulting, 9). With regard to the marriage market, not only have the opinions and attitudes of people changed in recent years, but new regulations and laws have been introduced as well. Through a thorough examination of eHarmony’s business strategy and the changing external environment (specifically the marriage market), the theory of Plain Consequentialism will help illustrate why eHarmony’s decisions regarding how to address same-sex marriages was/is ethical.
Business Model & Strategy
Dr. Neil Clark Warren, a psychologist who had focused on marriage and family relationships throughout the past 35 years of his practice, founded eHarmony in 2000. “During that time, Dr. Warren had also written nine books on love, marriage, and emotional health and made numerous appearances as a speaker at conferences and seminars as a relationship expert” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 4). Up until that point, there were very few matchmaking services that focused on singles seeking serious relationships and long-term compatibility (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 4) and Dr. Warren hoped to fill that void.
As mentioned above, the business model and product offerings of eHarmony were very much aligned with this strategy. “eHarmony distinguished itself from other personals sites by offering a tightly integrated system that encompassed a Personality Profile, which fed into a matching algorithm, which then led to a Guided Communication system” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 5). These unique product offerings aimed to connect people who have a strong degree of suspected compatibility. Due to the proven success of the eHarmony business model, many competitors have been attempting to copy these product features to remain competitive.
The first step in their matchmaking process is called The Personality Profile. The Personality Profile forms the central part of the Relationship Questionnaire. As stated on the eHarmony website, The Relationship Questionnaire is “designed to help us get to know you at a deeper level. It is the first step in finding love” (eHarmony Tour). The Personality Profile is a comprehensive questionnaire comprised of 258 questions.
‘We were quite rigorous in every step of developing the questionnaires of personality, values, and interests, which were the three primary constructs’ recalled Dr. Galen Buckwalter, Chief Scientist at eHarmony. Having developed the instrument, Warren and his team surveyed over 2,000 couples before the website was launched. (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 5).
While developing the Personality Profile was a rigorous process that took a significant amount of time, completing the questionnaire is also a rigorous task for eHarmony’s love-seeking users. Those who do not complete the Relationship Questionnaire cannot become an eHarmony customer; thus, there is a consistency between this feature and their overall strategic positioning. “Positioning choices determine not only which activities a company will perform and how it will configure individual activities but also how activities relate to one another” (Porter, 70). The questionnaire serves as a way for eHarmony to wean out the visitors that are not truly committed to finding a long-term companion, which compliments their corporate strategy. “Since it is hard to sign-up, the eHarmony person self-selects. There is a shared sense of investment to be part of eHarmony,” claimed Greg Waldorf (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 5), the current CEO of eHarmony.
The next step in their matchmaking process is their patented matching algorithm. After an applicant completed the Personality Profile and Relationship Questionnaire, their answers were analyzed the matching algorithm. The algorithm was designed to consider “similarity to be more important for personality characteristics, then values, then interests” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 6). The algorithm was tested and continuously improved based off of various comprehensive studies of married couples.
Between 2000 and 2004, eHarmony did numerous rounds of matching algorithm validation with over 4,000 couples. The results were very encouraging: the algorithm could predict to a high degree of accuracy whether couples would end up in the top quartile of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, a tool used by researchers to measure long-term relationship happiness (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 6).
While many considered the patent eHarmony secured for their algorithm to be a marketing ploy aimed at showing the scientific basis behind eHarmony’s product, further studies revealed concrete evidence for its effectiveness. A 2005 study conducted by Harris Interactive revealed the fact that “eHarmony couples have significantly happier and more successful marriages than couples who met in any other ways…[they] scored significantly higher than other marrieds on the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (average score = 127 versus 113)” (eHarmony Press Releases).
After a match is made, the last step of the matchmaking process comes into play. Dr. Warren was responsible for the development of this last step, called Guided Communication. Guided Communication involved guiding couples through a set of questions before communicating directly. The first few questions were “easy-to-answer questions from a list provided by eHarmony” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 7). After these questions the next stage involved articulating their list of “must-haves” and “can’t stands.” The last stage involved exchanging a few open-ended questions to allow for a more thorough description of both parties’ values. After the Guided Communication process, the pair would then have the opportunity to send emails, exchange photos and ultimately decide if they want to meet in person and possibly pursue a relationship. “At any point in the process, either party could ‘close’ the match and cease any further communication” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 7). This is yet another example of what Michael Porter would call a “first-order fit,” describing “simple consistency between each activity (function) and the overall strategy” (Porter, 71). The ability to close the communication contributes to the successful long-term relationships eHarmony prides itself on, as someone who feels like the connection might not be as strong as they had hoped will not typically waste their time communicating with their match.
As mentioned earlier, competitors often worked to imitate eHarmony’s product offerings and strategy in an attempt to capture more of the market. Match, for example, is one of eHarmony’s main competitors. In 2006 Match launched a new brand, called Chemistry to challenge eHarmony in the serious relationship market. Like eHarmony, Match required its users fill out a comprehensive questionnaire before becoming full members of the site and also created their own algorithm, which focused on interpersonal chemistry rather than psychosocial compatibility, like eHarmony’s (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 12). eHarmony was not only competing with other online matchmaking sites, but with traditional forms of dating as well. Lucky for eHarmony, the way people viewed relationships and marriage had been undergoing changes for quite some time and changes that would allow for online dating industry to grow tremendously.
The External Environment
While the institution of marriage has developed quite differently throughout various cultures and geographic regions of the world, it remains one of the world’s most central institutions. In the U.S., the concept of a couple meeting privately for a romantic interaction started among middle-class teenagers in the 1920s. These changes were very much influenced by technological advances, such as the introduction of telephones, automobiles and drive-in theatres (Lawson & Leck, 190). By the early 1980s the concept of marriage transformed from a functional partnership to an institution based on love. Americans believed that the purpose of marriage was to find someone that made them happy (The Frayed Knot). “In the 1990s the Internet became a major vehicle for social encounters. Through the Internet, people can interact over greater distances in a shorter period and at less expense than in the past” (Lawson & Leck, 190).
While these changes were taking place, other trends began to appear. By 1980 the marriage rate had reached its lowest point in recorded history and the divorce rate reached its peak in 1981 (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 2). Also, more recently, “[s]ociety has become more accepting of different forms of marriage and alternatives to marriage,” (Elliot, Krivickas, Brault & Kreider, 3) including same-sex marriage. The managerial decision regarding how eHarmony would offer its singles matching services to men seeking other men and women seeking other women was where eHarmony began to run into a few ethical dilemmas.
While one needed to fill out the Relationship Questionnaire in order to become an eHarmony user, they first had to provide basic information to gain any access to the website whatsoever. This required users to provide their name, zip code, sex and what sex they are seeking. Those wishing to find a companion of the same sex were simply not allowed to sign up. This business decision attracted a great deal of attention during a time in which national opinions on same-sex marriages were beginning to change.
“Given eHarmony’s limited resources and the relatively small size of the same-sex market, the company did not believe it made sense to enter that marketplace” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 5). The company faced a class-action lawsuit in 2007 under California’s Unruh Civil Right Act, which states:
All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever. (Civil Code section 51).
The case, filed by a lesbian woman named Linda Carlson, accused eHarmony of discriminating based upon sexual orientation, which they clearly did. Although eHarmony did not admit to any wrongdoing, they settled the case in 2008 and subsequently launched a separate same-sex matching service, Compatible Partners, in 2009. To this day, one wishing to find companionship with a person of the same sex is denied access to eHarmony and only given the option to sign up on the Compatible Partners site.
Plain Consequentialism & Conclusion
Using the framework of Plain Consequentialism, it will become evident that eHarmony’s decision to discriminate based on sexual orientation was ethical although it doesn’t seem so on the surface. The view of Plain Consequentialism states, “[o]f all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences” (Consequentialism, 1). The theory of consequentialism does not make it explicit as to what types of consequences are right, or good, however. There may be instances in which two people agree that a moral action is right if it produces the best overall consequences, yet have differing opinions about what the best overall consequences are. “The most traditional view among Consequentialists is that the only kind of result that is good in itself is happiness” (Consequentialism, 2). Thus, this view considers the right action to be the one that causes the most happiness. So, we shall now consider how eHarmony’s business decision to exclude those looking for a same-sex partnership holds up under this view.
While it seems that excluding homosexuals from eHarmony would only make homosexuals, and those who advocate for same-sex marriage, angry, it seems there is a more pertinent issue at hand here. As mentioned above, in the changing external environment section, the purpose of marriage has slowly transformed from a functional partnership, into a search for someone who makes you happy. In L.W. Sumner’s book, Welfare Happiness & Ethics, she claims that in order to be happy you must “experience your life as satisfying or fulfilling” (146). Additionally, in Judith Horstman’s book, The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex and the Brain, claims that the results of a 2010 meta analysis of 148 studies shows that the lack of relationships can be as deadly as well-established risk factors for death such as smoking and alcohol (2). Thus, those coming to the eHarmony website will likely experience the most happiness by successfully finding someone extremely compatible marry and spend their life with, as this surely results in a greater feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction than someone who doesn’t find a similar compatible match for themselves. The question then becomes, how well will eHarmony’s patented matching algorithm work when attempting to pair members of the same sex? If it would work just as well as pairing heterosexual members, it would seem that the view of Plain Consequentialism would suggest that eHarmony’s decision to exclude homosexuals was unethical. eHarmony, however, seems to believe that additional research would be needed to “establish statistically valid and reliable matching models for the same-sex market” (Piskorski, Halaburda & Smith, 6). In other words, matching same-sex members would entail having a different set of compatibility parameters.
There is a great deal of research that seems to support the fact that homosexual’s would have different compatibility parameters than heterosexuals of the same sex.
Researchers are confirming what most homosexuals have known all their lives: sexual orientation is neither a choice nor something in the way people are brought up. It’s something influenced by genes and perhaps prenatal factors, and people are born that way….In a recent study, brain scans show that the brains of gay men are similar to those of straight women and that the brains of heterosexual men and lesbians are similar. (Horstman, 72-73)
This research would seem to suggest that eHarmony’s present algorithm would need to be altered in some way to give homosexual men and women the best chance to find a long-term companion. The action not to allow homosexual members on eHarmony, but only on Compatible Partners, not only aligns with eHarmony’s business strategy (to have a pool of members on each site that give one another other the best chance at finding a companion), but would seem to maximize the overall happiness of their members as well and thus, is the morally right decision.
“CA Codes (civ:43-53).” CA Codes (civ:43-53). California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
“Consequentialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
“EHarmony.” Official Site Tour. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
EHarmony Support Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
Elite Consulting. “EHarmony A Strategic Assessment.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Elliot, Diana, Krist Krivickas, Matthew Brault, and Rose Kreider. “Historical Marriage Trends from 1890-2010: A Focus on Race Differences.” (2012): 1-27.Census.gov. 2012. Web.
Harris Interactive. “New Research Finds EHarmony Couples Are Significantly Happier in Their Marriages than Non-eHarmony Couples.” EHarmony.com. EHarmony, 2006. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.
Horstman, Judith. The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain: The Neuroscience of How, When, Why, and Who We Love. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012. Print.
Lawson, Helene M., and Kira Leck. “Dynamics of Internet Dating.” Social Science Computer Review 24.2 (2006): 189-208. Web.
Piskorski, Mikolaj Jan, Hanna Halaburda, and Troy Smith. “eHarmony.” Harvard Business School Case 709-424, July 2008.
Porter, M. E. “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 6 (November–December 1996): 61–78.
Sumner, Leonard Wayne. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. Print.