The Reason You’re Out of Work Affects Interview Invitations

By: Nancy Ordman

Job applicants in today’s climate of (nearly) full employment might anticipate interview offers if their resume lines up well with a position’s requirements. For job seekers who are currently employed, this assumption sounds reasonable.

Unemployed job seekers with previous work experience might also expect a similar, objective evaluation of qualifications and requirements. New research from the University of North Carolina indicates that the reason a person is unemployed affects the way the hiring manager evaluates her or his application.  Specifically, the research indicates that employers prefer candidates who were laid off over those who opted to stay home with children.

Katherine Weisshaar noted that there was no research on the effect, if any, of the reason a worker is unemployed on future employment prospects. Two different theories suggest reasons why any unemployed worker might encounter discrimination when applying for a job. The first, the theory of skill deterioration, proposes that employers hesitate to hire an applicant whose experience is not completely up-to-date.  The second theory, the signaling theory, indicates that employers pick up on signals from employment history that evoke assumptions or stereotypes – not necessarily accurate – about an applicant.

Weisshaar developed what she calls a resume-signaling theory and tested it against real labor-market data. The resume signals she tested include one for unemployment due to layoff (resume scarring), another for unemployment while caring for children (opt-out) and a third for parents who continued to work through parenthood, with no time off. She first asked a national sample of testers to rate resumes on factors that are included in an “ideal worker norm” – an internalized construct of a good employee. This exercise indicated that absence from work for child care violated this norm and therefore resulted in fewer interview offers. “Resume-scarred” applicants garnered more interviews than the opt-out group, but fewer than the continually-employed contingent.

The experimenter then conducted an audit of resume evaluations, based on over 3,000 resumes sent to job openings in 50 U.S. metropolitan areas. This phase of her research confirmed what she learned in the first test: resume evaluators subconsciously selectively downgraded opt-out applicants. A third test indicated that the effects of local labor market conditions can vary from these macro observations. For example, in a competitive labor market, even continually-employed mothers fare worse than opt-out fathers.

In this research, the author teased a reason why we continue to find discrimination, however subtle, against parents who temporarily opt out of the labor market: these workersiolate the ideal-worker norm and hiring managers might not be aware that they are doing this. Awareness of bias is crucial to removing it. Weisshaar suggests several areas for additional research, including evaluating other kinds of resume-based signaling and ways to diminish the impact of opt-out information. She also proposes rethinking the ideal worker norm to one that is closer to reality.