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Discrimination and Job Loss

April 20 2011 - It has been known for some time that there is bias against the unemployed in the job market. Research at UCLA and the State University of New York-Stony Brook now shows that jobless Americans face discrimination unrelated to their skills or to ways in which they lost their previous jobs.

The researchers recruited a random cross-section of Americans over the Internet and asked them to appraise fictitious job candidates. They found that even when the participants were rating the same evidence about job applicants, unemployed applicants were at a disadvantage compared with employed applicants. For example, in one study, participants were presented with the same fictitious resume. Researchers Geoffrey Ho and Margaret Shih told half of the participants that it was the resume of an employed applicant. The other half were told that it belonged to an out-of-work person. Participants were then asked to rank the worker on a number of qualities known from psychological research to be critical in forming a desirable impression of an individual.

Despite having seen exactly the same resume, participants rated the "unemployed" resume as belonging to a less competent, warm and proactive individual than the "employed" resume. Consequenly participants said that they would be less likely to interview or hire the unemployed individual than the employed person.

Similar results were found when participants were shown a short video of a job interview. The researchers considered this to be a richer source of information about the supposed applicant. Subjects who thought the applicant was employed found the interview to be more impressive than participants who believed the applicant was unemployed.

Lead researcher Geoffrey Ho, a doctoral student in human resources and organizational behavior at the UCLA Anderson School of Management said:

"We were surprised to find that, all things being equal, unemployed applicants were viewed as less competent, warm and hireable than employed individuals. We were also surprised to see how little the terms of departure mattered. Job candidates who said they voluntarily left a position faced the same stigma as job candidates who said they had been laid off or terminated."

The findings were presented at an April 10 conference on "Reconnecting to Work: Consequences of Long-Term Unemployment and Prospects for Job Creation" at UCLA. Margaret Shih, a co-author on the study with Ho and an associate professor of human resources and organizational behavior at UCLA Anderson said:

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the psychological stigma of unemployment. We found that individuals tend to make negative associations with those who are unemployed, which often leads to unfair discrimination."

It is known that the longer individuals remain unemployed, the lesser their chances of finding work. But this has been attributed to recruiters' concerns over inadequate skills or lack of persistence in looking for jobs. Margaret Shih explained:

"Economists have tended to chalk up long-term unemployment to the probability of skill decay or discouragement, or employers' perceptions of skill decay. But we're finding that when there's no evidence that skills have deteriorated, out-of-work job applicants are still at a disadvantage. The stigma may help explain why the unemployed may have systematically lower chances of reconnecting to work."

Providing different reasons for unemployment - leaving voluntarily, being fired or laid off - did not seem to make any difference. Only when the loss of a job was could not be attributed to the individual in any way, for example bankruptcy on the part of the employer, did the stigma of being unemployed disappear.

The study authors also included Todd L. Pittinsky, an associate professor of technology and society at Stony Brook, and Daniel Walters, a UCLA Anderson M.B.A. student. The UCLA-Stony Brook team's future plans include exploring what, if any, role the state of the economy plays in the psychological stigma of unemployment. They also plan to sample HR professionals to see if they share the same prejudices as the general public.